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Resource Maximization in Magic – Value Found Outside of Parity

Written by Zach Cramer on . Posted in Competitive Magic

Resource Maximization in Magic – Value Found Outside of Parity

Zach Cramer

Zach is a Northeastern Magic grinder who specializes in eternal formats. When building decks, he has a strong preference to Blue cards, toolboxes and combo decks. With a recent RPTQ finish just short of an invitation, Zach hopes to take his skills to the next level and play on the Pro Tour.

Greetings all, this week I want to talk about the decks I have been playing over the last few events. I’d like to talk about a central theme I have been exploring; a common thread among all of these decks: Resource Maximization. It is my contention that the incredibly nondescript notion of “card advantage” is finally dead and deep in the grave. It’s time to look at cards outside of the quantity in your hand, but, more about the quality they provide. Today, I’m going to talk about several main ways to look at higher value out of your cards. Now, I recognize that this statement seems to be contentious, but, this article is meant to illustrate that the way to win games of Magic is not to cast more Divinations than your opponent. Instead, I would like to offer an explanation to how exactly to decipher the value of cards against an opponent. To do this, I will focus in on three macro-situations in which the person who has more cards in hand is still likely losing the game.

Making their Cards Dead

The first thing I wanted to talk about is not about your cards as live as possible, but, more about making their cards dead. A dead card is a card that has absolutely no use value. Consider something like the old UW Control decks from Standard. Playing no creatures makes all the Fatal Pushes, Abrades, and Murders completely blank. Being able to look at your opponent’s deck and know that before the game even begins, you’ve slated yourself to have a huge advantage because their 7 card hand might suddenly become a double mulligan. Last season, I played the Mono Blue Outcome deck because I appreciate how the deck fights on a unique axis. While it’s not completely creatureless, it’s using spells that can turn cards on the stack into completely dead cards. Being able to play Paradoxical Outcome in response to a removal spell can turn a real card into a dead one, lost mana and more cards. Having a plan that lines up on a different level than what your opponent brings to the table maximizes your own resources. However, it can even go a level deeper. In the last few years, control decks have played on this by playing no creatures in game 1 and boarding into creatures in game 2. However, there’s value in having creatures in your deck that can force your opponent to keep in bad removal in the post-board games, to get duped back to back games. A major card in the last Standard format was Doomfall because it is a removal spell that doesn’t get blanked. People who build to minimize making their cards dead in game 1 will get value in the same way as decks trying to make cards dead in the first place. Moreover, cards that require a specific clause to be met can also be made dead. Cast Down is a popular answer out of the Green Black midrange decks right now. Playing a deck full of Legends and tokens dwarfs the power of that card giving you more value than your opponent before the game even starts.

Making your dead cards live

At some point, you’re going to have some dead cards. Especially in formats that are as broad as Modern, you’re going to have a card that don’t get to go the distance. Truly blank cards need some assistance to be at their best. Cards like Brainstorm and recently Faithless Looting do a great job of spending a cantrip to turn a blank card into a tool for replaced cards. This value is important because it helps you turn a disadvantage into a boon. The reason that Brainstorm dominates Legacy is not because it produces card advantage, it’s because it can improve the power of your dead cards. The same, as Ben Friedman pointed out, is true for Faithless Looting because you can discard dead cards and filter them into better ones. Moreover, in a deck like Mardu, a dead spell in the graveyard reduces Bedlam Reveler’s cost or still makes a token with Young Pyromancer. Mardu being able to turn card advantage instead into card velocity offers more speed and value into faster formats, which helps describe its rise to prominence. Turning a 0 into anything is impactful and something you should be looking to do. Moreover, adding cards to your deck that can improve 0s without being 0s themselves is essential to this process. A concrete example of this was a recent UR spells deck I drafted in limited. In M19, I’ve found a lot of games are ended because you draw 2-4 more lands than your opponent. In an effort to add value to those extra lands, I played two copies of Macabre Waltz so that I could hold a 6th or 7th land in my hand to discard to Macabre Waltz and get back two creatures. Many people might see Macabre Waltz as a card advantage spell, but, it’s actually the dead card that is providing the greatest return. Even more currently, the Jump-start mechanic helps you gain extra value from your spells by spending cards to cast the Jump-start spell again. This can turn dead cards into refreshed resources and is an integral part of why Izzet strategies often can grind out their opponents.

Winning a Resource War

What I’ve pointed out in the last two points, Magic is about resources. Despite my belief that card advantage as an objective term is basically dead, the resources that make up Magic are still important to consider. Rather than talking about cards in a blank sense, I’m trying to point to the resources that those cards represent and how the text on your cards can be used to gain advantage. Thinking about advantage, I’d like to point to two major resources that gain the most traction in current Magic: Cost Reduction and Mana Acceleration.

Looking back at older formats like Legacy, decks like Storm have thrived because of cards like Dark Ritual and Lotus Petal that trade card advantage for a temporary mana acceleration. Decks like Tron and Amulet use synergy pieces like the Urza lands and Amulet of Vigor to provide a similar kind of mana advantage, with a little bit of help. While Tron is getting permanent advantages for maintaining its synergy lands, Amulet features a way to more quickly accelerate in the early game and then uses cards like Azusa and Primeval Titan gain the more permanent advantage in the late game. KCI is operating in a similar way as well, the massive amount of value that Krark-Clan Ironworks can give development pieces like Ichor Wellspring is why it’s at the top of the format. Cost reduction exists in Modern, but, mostly in the banned list. The Phyrexian spells like Gitaxian Probe and Mental Misstep are gone and the cost reducing Delve spells like Treasure Cruise and Dig through Time are also out of the game, but, Bedlam Reveler and more recently Become Immense, Hollow One, and Gurmag Angler are seeing a place in Modern is because the cost reducers add a little more to each card. While more traditional, conservative advantages like Farseek, Sakura-Tribe Elder, and Search for Tomorrow still exist. But, in Modern, it’s about going big.

A Note on ‘The Anti-Resource’: Lock and Hate Pieces

Much like making your opponent’s cards dead by altering your deck, you can also make your opponent’s cards dead by adding cards rather than taking them away. Cards like Blood Moon, Ensnaring Bridge, Chalice of the Void, Rest in Peace, and Stony Silence can blank more than just cards, but, entire resources. For a long time, Modern was defined by the hosers and hammers that destroyed various archetypes, but, in the new world order of Modern, the Tier 1 is at the pantheon because it’s become resilient to the hosers and the hammers. Think about it: most articles today clearly articulate that Blood Moon and Land Destruction in general is actually just poor against Tron. On camera, we have seen lock decks like KCI respond to Extripate(!), at a time where Death’s Shadow and its many removal spells and discard dominated the format, Humans was able to weather the removal to the point that control decks have had to completely alter the names of their sweepers to gain an edge. Being able to address an opponent’s attack on your resources is a great way keeping an advantage in a game of Magic and the success of Modern’s Tier 1 is currently redefining how we look at Modern philosophies.

Sideboards: A Second Chance

I’d like to close with a couple sentences about my favorite dimension to Magic: sideboards. I’ve hinted about this a little bit when talking about how control uses creatures, but, sideboards serve as another very important way to look at blank cards a resource. A well-crafted sideboard is one of your best tools in 66% of your match because you have an opportunity to take every poorly positioned card and replace it with something that could be powerful and useful. If you frequent my articles, you’ll know that I spend a lot of time talking about building a coherent 75, which is another way of saying you should be looking at your whole card pool in a constructed deck as a means to present a fully-functional 60 in every post-board game. More acutely, this means making sure your 15 card sideboard always has a replacement for dead cards and it also comes fully stocked with ways to improve the cards you’re battling with after board. Standard, in the current moment, is full of multiple competitive decks. The reason for this is that these decks all include ways to combat the diversity of decks in Standard. The White aggro decks can play a card like Ajani, Adversary of Tyrants that can provide card advantage while also improving their current board. The Red decks have Experimental Frenzy to take the game longer while the Control decks feature a variety of creature threats to jockey the traditional axis of the game and disrupt the conventional understanding of how a controlling deck wins the game. Having access to broad tools in your sideboard allows you to optimize the power of your deck by having access to a card that can be brought in for a variety of matches to replace cards that might be excellent in some Game 1s and completely dead in others. One thing I hope that the next set of Standard offers us is more modal cards, as they provide a variety of purposes and are rarely dead.

That’s all I’ve got for this week. If you’ve liked what you read, please let me know in the comments or on Twitter. If you’re interested in more content like this or elaborating on any of the points I’ve made, let me know and I’m sure I’ll be able to write about it soon. Until next time.

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