Consistently Underperforming Archetypes
With a new format on the horizon, I wanted to take a look at some historically popular but underperforming archetypes. There are specific reasons why these archetypes consistently underperform, and that is because they have glaring strategic weaknesses that they can’t really cover. When brewing is on the horizon, it’s not only important to know what you want to play, but if it is likely to succeed. There is no perfect deck. Every deck has strategic holes; the issue is whether they can be exploited and/or covered. All successful decks have some way of avoiding their strategic holes, whereas archetypes that underperform really have few, if any, ways of coping. Let’s get started.
My first article for this site was on the subject of White Weenie, and its largest, card-specific hole. I want to expand a little on what I wrote there.
White Weenie’s central strategic hole is not actually Wrath of God, but Wrath of God is the most prevalent and strongest example of the deck’s strategic hole. White Weenie’s central hole is that it only has one angle of attack—creatures. With the loss of Armageddon many years ago, White Weenie lost the ability to attack from any other angle. White Weenie only ever does one thing—turn men sideways. This makes the deck a one-trick pony.
Now, being a one-trick pony does not always equate to unplayability, but it does make your deck very easy to hate out. Storm combo is really good example of a very playable one-trick pony. So, why is Storm combo successful while White Weenie fails? What is the between the two? The answer is opportunity costs.
Let’s take a look at Storm combo first. There are some very strong hate cards for Storm combo in Eternal formats—Trinisphere, Sphere of Resistance, Chalice of the Void, Counterbalance + Top, Ethersworn Canonist, Meddling Mage, Arcane Laboratory, Rule of Law, and more all provide strong resistance in cheap packages as far as the Storm player is concerned. So, how does Storm cover this weakness?
The answer is in opportunity cost. The hate cards that are good against Storm combo are only good against Storm combo. This means that from a format standpoint, you can build a deck that crushes Storm combo, but it will have weakness all across the format in exchange. Because the hate for a deck like Storm combo is so deck-specific, there is a rather large opportunity cost you incur by playing those hate cards (either in your main deck or sideboard). This means that Storm combo is unlikely to face large amounts of hate, because those decks sacrifice too much to beat Storm combo.
White Weenie is similarly rather easy to hate out, but the opportunity cost is much lower. If you know your opponent can basically only attack with creatures, all you have to do is be really good at killing creatures, and the opportunity cost of doing that is very low in Standard and Extended. Consider that spells like Day of Judgment and Pyroclasm see play all the time, and not only that, you have large creatures like Baneslayer Angel and Inferno Titan that can win fights against most of, if not the entirety of, White Weenie’s creature base. Add this to the fact that these cards are useful in a variety of matchups, and you reach a breaking point where White Weenie is typically not going to be able to fight through eight to ten rounds of decks filled with hate.
Simply put, White Weenie is far more likely to run into a deck packing four Baneslayer Angels, four Wall of Omens, four Day of Judgment, and four Condemn between its main and side than Storm combo is to run into a deck that is packing four Trinispheres, four Meddling Mages, four Arcane Laboratory, and four Chalice of the Void. The fact that White Weenie’s central strategic hole involves such a large pillar of Standard and Extended—creatures—makes the deck underperform consistently.
The success of White Weenie depends on its ability to cover this strategic hole. So, essentially, if you plan on playing White Weenie, ask yourself this—can I beat a deck packed with creature removal and fatties?
This is a fan favorite, and I’m sorry to bust your bubble, but this deck is generally not very good. Mono-Black Control’s central weakness is its weak ability to interact with large swaths of Magic cards—powerful sorceries, of course, but especially artifacts and enchantments. The only thing mono-Black can do is make you discard them, which doesn’t help if you top-deck them or they are in play before MBC can make you discard them.
The last time MBC was a successful archetype was when Torment was Standard-legal, and even then it posted less consistent results than U/G Madness, Psychatog, and Squirrel-Opposition. Why?
Well, Psychatog was just a better deck, but U/G Madness and Squirrel-Opp both had cards that owned MBC’s face. Both decks could board Compost (and often did), and Squirrel-Opp was a deck based on two enchantments—Squirrel Nest and Opposition. Without the ability to interact consistently with these permanents, MBC would often fall to them, despite having Cabal Coffers, Duress, Corrupt, Drain Life, Mind Sludge, Mutilate, and Nantuko Shade available to it.
MBC has always been very good at killing creatures. That has never been the problem. The problem has been powerful sorceries like Upheaval, and powerful enchantments/artifacts like Compost and Opposition. MBC has always had issues covering these weaknesses (in particular the artifacts and enchantments) because it lacks ways of interacting with those specific cards. So essentially, MBC is good against creature decks like White Weenie, and, in general, has trouble against better archetypes that have more varied angles of attack.
But wait, there’s another archetype with very similar strategic problems—Mono-Red aggro. Mono-Red has little to no way of interacting with cards like Circle of Protection: Red, Kor Firewalker, Story Circle, and Sphere of Law, and yet, the archetype has been extremely successful over the years. Why? Speed.
Mono-Red is able to cover these weaknesses with the “Well, you might just be dead before your hate is relevant!” card. By giving you much less time to find any individual hate card, mono-Red can make individual hate cards effectively less useful by presenting the “Did you draw your hate?” situation. Thus, mono-Red showcases another way of covering weaknesses—speed.
Decking as a method of winning the game and decking as a strategy are two distinct things. The former deploys a card like Brain Freeze at the end of a combo, whereas the latter deploys a series of discreet cards which end in the opponent having no library. Of these two strategies, the former has been far more successful than the latter. Mill cards have shown up in both combo decks and control decks, but the strategy of those decks is not to deck you. The strategy of those cards is to either execute a combo or gain control of the game, and the win condition is just coincidentally a milling card.
The problem with decking as a strategy is interactivity and investment. Mill cards don’t affect the board, the stack, or the hand, which means that the player playing them is using his mana in a fundamentally noninteractive way. The second is that mill decks don’t actually accomplish anything until your opponent has zero cards in library. Effectively, every mill card you play until then has no effect on the game.
The strategy as a whole is popular because it is fun to win via an alternate angle of attack, but there really is no other similar strategy in Magic which shares both of these holes. Stax-style prison strategies share many elements of the investment hole, but it’s impossible to say that their cards have no immediate effect on the board. Often the fact that Stax, like mill, has to invest multiple cards while advancing its strategy opens it up to blowouts from cards ranging from Shattering Spree to Rebuild, but as a whole the archetype is successful because it possesses the ability to interact profitably while preventing the opponent from interacting with it. Mill is not capable of this.
Combo decks also frequently play many cards that don’t interact with the board (Ponder, Preordain, See Beyond, Brainstorm, Impulse, etc. have all seen heavy play within combo decks) but they have an element of velocity that Mill doesn’t. Sure, Ponder, Preordain and company don’t affect the board, but once again, they advance the combo deck’s strategy of assembling two or three specific cards that will win them the game together.
Mill’s fatal hole is that the cards it expends literally do not accomplish anything until it has already won the game. In a sense, Mill is binary. Either your opponent is milled out or he isn’t, and that is not a good place for a primary strategy to be when it requires as large a card investment as mill typically does.
Every deck has weaknesses, but when you play or select a deck it is important to know where those weaknesses are and what your plans are for covering them. There are a number of options available to cover weaknesses, and you as a player should be aware of them. This is particularly important for sideboarding, as it’s important to know whether you are actually shoring up your weaknesses or you are simply making it harder to cover them. All in all, understanding your deck’s own strengths and weaknesses from a strategic perspective will help you cover them from a tactical perspective, and this will make you a better player.
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