The competitive Magic scene frequently acts like a hive mind. Players never shy away from agreeing wholeheartedly with the general consensus on any particular topic without themselves actually engaging in testing, or even so much as thinking about the topic at hand at all. Specifically, the favorability of certain matchups for tier 1 decks (especially in Standard) are almost never questioned.
4-Color Copycat is good against B/G Constrictor, B/G Constrictor is good against Mardu Vehicles, and Mardu Vehicles is good against 4-Color Copycat. Players make deck decisions based solely on this information that many consider to be the be-all and end-all of the format. In fact, I only strongly agree with one of those three statements. This type of “hive mind” activity creates a lack of knowledge in many areas of every format, which leaves players with major blind spots, which opens up the element of the unknown for players who decide to deviate to take advantage of.
The unknown is a very broad term in Magic and can be applied to many cards, situations, decks, and metagames. However, those who can harness the unknown the best tend to rise to the top. Below I’ll outline several different types of the unknown, and how you can take advantage of each of them.
Unknown #1: The Deck
Competitive players, especially very good ones, always want to have an advantage over less experienced and less skilled players. One way to do that is to play a deck that takes advantage of your opponents’ lack of knowledge of the format. For example, I religiously play Ad Nauseam in Modern, and every tournament I go to, I regularly get one or two free wins when my opponent doesn’t fully understand the deck or know how to beat it. Beating Ad Nauseam is simple enough, but those without experience against it will always have a very hard time.
Selecting these sorts of decks that require your opponent to have a good working knowledge of the format and/or of the deck you are playing lets you leverage your knowledge and experience. Usually, this is called playing a “rogue deck,” but that term generally feels like it’s not taking the deck seriously, so I tend to shy away from it. If anything, I would say that these decks have an advantage over the established decks in the metagame, because they take advantage of the lack of knowledge of other players.
Unknown #2: Cards in Hand
I have two good examples for this, the first one being Modern (and Legacy) Infect.
Unfortunately for poison aficionados, Modern Infect is very much on the downswing after the printing of Fatal Push, which is an unconditional removal spell that isn’t damage based, something that Infect hasn’t really had to deal with before at 1 mana. However, Infect is still an excellent example of the second type of unknown: cards in hand. On their own, Infect plays a bunch of rather atrocious cards. However, thanks to the unknown factor of the deck, it can cast a few of these cards without much to worry about and win quickly.
Most of Infect’s pump spells do the same thing for the pilot: they add damage output to a creature. However, they all slightly deviate from each other in very meaningful ways, which is what the opponent has to worry about. This puts the pressure on the opponent to make the right call as to when to fire off removal spells or not, while Infect can sit back and wait for the opponent to make a misstep or simply “guess wrong” as to what pump spells Infect has in hand. After all, the deck is still attacking in the mean time.
For the second example, we’re going to travel back to a Standard that feels like a very long time ago. Jeff Hoogland was doing his brewer thing, and came to battle with Temur Flash (known as RUG Flash back then), a deck that took advantage of the werewolf mechanic in the original Innistrad block and instant-speed interaction. Ideally, Jeff would play a Huntmaster of the Fells, then play nothing on his turn to transform Huntmaster, but still have interaction on his opponent’s turn with counter spells, kill spells, draw spells, or more flash creatures.
This would let him flip his Huntmaster back and forth, gaining impressive value turn after turn. The opponent would be forced to pick and choose what they thought Jeff had in his hand, as inaction, similar to the Infect example above, was simply not the answer. Jeff’s unknown factor in this deck is what allowed him to match up his middling cards extremely well turn after turn against his opponent’s cards.
Unknown #3: Lines of Play
If you do end up playing a popular deck, you’re not necessarily not going to be able to take advantage of the unknown in either of the two ways above. In this hypothetical tournament where you’re playing the deck that’s public enemy #1, your opponent has likely played against your deck before, perhaps even your exact 75 cards.
However, if you take more unorthodox lines of play, the element of the unknown is reintroduced, and your opponent is under the same pressure that we see in examples #1 and #2, where they have to take action, taking a swing in the dark as to what your line of play leads to. The best players find these lines naturally, and the best examples of these usually take place at the Pro Tour, where the most common lines of play aren’t yet established, so each line of play has a certain element of the unknown.
It’s very hard to exactly pinpoint the qualities or the applications of the unknown, but each of the three examples of it above are important to grasp for competitive players. Playing an unknown or underrepresented deck that requires your opponent to have experience in the matchup is something that is easy for most competitive players to take advantage of.
If that’s not your style, playing decks that take advantage of the hidden information of cards in hand is another way to leverage the information you have versus the information that your opponent has. Infect may be struggling in Modern, but it will certainly rise again.
Finally, all players, regardless of the deck you are playing, should understand non-conventional lines of play and try to take advantage of them. You opponent may have put in more work in testing than you have, but do they have experience in testing against a certain line of play that you can take?
Have you checked out our Deck of the Day column yet? Each day of 2017 we’ll be featuring a different Standard, Modern, or Legacy deck that deserves its moment in the spotlight. You can read the latest one here, where we covered a unique mono-red control deck in Modern.
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