Going Deep – Winning Versus Not Losing

Pyre_Adept

Hi Friends, Today’s article is a collaborative piece with my friend and teammate VSarius. The origin of the article came from a conversation we were having on Discord, and ultimately evolved into this co-authored piece. I’ll let VSarius introduce himself.

Hello everyone, my name is VSarius. Some of you may be familiar with me from the Eternal Discord or my occasional tournament appearances but I’m sure many others are not. I have always been a fan of articles involving games that go beyond the scope of the merely analyzing decklists or cards, ones which go deeper and attempt to systemize what exactly makes interactions and resources behave the way they do. In other words, I’m a fan of theory.

Today’s article will be attempting to explain, analyze, and present our thoughts on an important question: “Why must some decks aim to actively win while others do not?” It’s an interesting concept and one that touches on a lot of notable subjects that have been developed in card games over the years; the primary one we will be concerning ourselves with is inevitability.

What is Inevitability?

Inevitability is the idea that over infinite time one deck will win over another. Most card game players are familiar with this concept at least in practice. An obvious matchup example is Stonescar Rally Aggro vs. Feln Control. Stonescar seeks to overwhelm the slower deck starting from the very first turn of the game while Feln seeks to survive. With each turn that the game goes on the cards that the Stonescar deck draws become less relevant to the overall game-state while the cards that the Feln Control deck plays will eventually overpower the Stonescar player. In order to refine this definition, let’s describe three interlocking criteria that are useful to determine who has inevitability.

Two competent and evenly matched players are playing a given match up. The player who has an increased chance of winning as the game goes longer has inevitability.

This criterion is really just describing the phenomenon of inevitability, rather than offering any reasons why one player has inevitability. Yes, one deck is more likely to win in longer games, but one of the objectives of this article is discovering why that is the case. Nevertheless, if experience shows that deck A tends to win in longer games over deck B, then it doesn’t really matter what the actual cards in the deck are. Deck A has inevitability.

The deck with higher average card power has inevitability.

In the example we used above with Stonescar Rally Aggro versus Feln Control, it should be obvious who has the higher average card quality. Feln is drawing Champions of Cunning, Black Sky Harbingers, and other haymakers, while Stonescar is picking up Grenadin Drones and Oni Ronins. When talking “average card power” I am also not taking into consideration the cost of the cards. It would be possible to argue that Oni Ronin is a more powerful card relative to its cost than Champion of Cunning, but costs are essentially irrelevant in games that go infinitely long. Although the standard of “average power level” is useful, it has some issues. The first is that it ignores synergies. It is hard to argue that Crown of Possibilities has a very high power level all by itself, but anyone that has played against Clockroaches knows that they have inevitability in most match ups. It is also difficult to compare the power level of very different effects. What has higher power level, Mystic Ascendant or Azindel’s Gift? There are also complications accounting for cards that scale over time. How do you calculate the average power level of a deck with Flame Blast or Great Parliament, since these cards become almost infinitely powerful in the ultra-late game? Still, if you were able to measure which deck has the better average quality top decks in a late game, it is likely that they have inevitability.

The deck with the more powerful late-game plan has inevitability.

Here we are trying to account for synergies in the deck rather than just the absolute power level of individual cards. Crystalline Chalice decks, for example, are built on the back of having an extremely powerful late game engine that is difficult to break apart. As a result they have inevitability over many other decks. Of the three criteria used here, I feel that this is the most precise, but also the most difficult to determine. The late game for a Chalice deck is extremely dependant on drawing their namesake card, could they be said to have inevitability if the first Chalice is 35 cards deep? Also, there are mechanisms to counter a deck’s late game. Can you say Chalice has a great late game if their Chalices get hit with Rain of Frogs or Passage of Eons?

Pursuing the Win

Now that we understand inevitability we understand why some decks are forced to actively attempt to kill the opponent. They have no other choice. Given enough time, their chance of winning drops, there opponent will draw more powerful cards. The only way out of this predicament is to kill the opponent before the opponent is able to implement their late game. That being said, these aggressive decks have an advantage in the early game because they do not spend resources on enabling their late game. You can’t get power screwed if everything in your deck costs 1 or 2.

When we think of decks that try to actively kill the opponent our mind instantly jumps to aggro decks such as Rakano Plate, Stonescar Burn, or anything with Rally. These decks take this paradigm and run with it. However, there are some match ups where one of the players is actually forced to try and kill their opponent. While we do not tend to think of them that way, Big Combrei decks are also forced to pursue the win in many match ups. For example, Burn has a sort of “theoretical inevitability” over Combrei. If the Big Combrei player chooses to not attack and merely play defensive, on a long enough timeline they will die to 25 damage Flameblasts. Often we call the moment when the control deck can begin trying to kill the opponent “turning the corner”.

However, in most cases a deck like Big Combrei does not in fact have to actively try to win. All it has to do is prevent the opponent from doing so. Eventually it will have enough card advantage, board positioning, and the means to use all of these extra resources in an efficient manner that the opponent will no longer be able to win. At that point actually reducing your opponent’s life total to 0 is more of a formality.

This is the reason why we see most midrange decks being forced to employ a method for breaking stalls. Although their opponent may have a more powerful end-game, the power level of a card like Crystallize has the potential to be absurdly high, and they get to punk their opponent out of the game. If they allow these larger and heavier decks all the time in the world, they will no longer be able to win. True inevitability rests with Big Combrei, as such their opponents must actively try to win, while Big Combrei needs only stop them from doing so.

Stopping Their Win

With that we can segue into the opposite stance of trying to not lose. This is actually a superior strategic approach. As we have already discussed, the most important factor that allows us to position ourselves this way is whether we have inevitability in a given matchup. However, that is not all. You are allowed to play a “try not to lose” style if you can either answer all of your opponents potential threats or if you can invalidate them. If your opponent’s deck is made of 50 Pyre Adepts and your deck is made of 50 Assembly Lines, even though you do not have a single ‘answer’ in your entire deck, you are given the option of simply playing not to lose. Every card in your opponents deck is functionally irrelevant. There is no realistic path to victory for your opponent, and you have the freedom to literally never attack. If you have even 1 additional card in your deck, you would now never have to try and win the game. You can simply sit back and watch them lose. Obviously it doesn’t need to come to this, and you can actually kill them through conventional combat if you like, but you have the option to just let them deck, and they are totally powerless.

So why is this positioning so strategically important? Well for one it allows us to eliminate the risk in our actions. There are many cards that punish the aggressor (Scorpion Wasp and Lightning Strike being obvious examples). If I never have to gamble over whether you have a card that punishes me I eliminate that potentially risky play from the equation. All I have to do is concern myself with answering my opponents threats. If I can beat every conceivable threat, than it is the equivalent of having the opponent in a checkmate.

Card Advantage and Virtual Card Advantage

A subject that we would be remiss to neglect is card advantage. This is a topic that is fundamental to all card game theory, and as such we are not going to review the basics. The last situation could easily be read as an example about card advantage rather than inevitability. One of our Assembly Lines trades with 3 of our opponent’s Pyre Adepts – seems like a classic 3-for-1. Card advantage should also be included in our definition of inevitability. Our second criteria for a deck having inevitability was “average card power”, but if we are playing a deck with Wisdom of the Elders we get to amplify the power of the rest of our deck because we increase the chance of drawing our high power cards. Card advantage also relates to criteria three – late game plan. Many of the most powerful late game cards are focused on generating card advantage, such as Mystic Ascendant, Vara, or Channel the Tempest. One of the key advantages of big card draw effects is that it can often snowball you into more card draw effects such asChannel the Tempest drawing you into another Channel. Once a certain momentum is reached it becomes very hard for your opponent to come back.

Closely associated with card advantage is the topic of virtual card advantage. If you are unfamiliar with the subject I encourage you to read this article by Michael Flores, as it summarizes the most important features. A clear example of virtual card advantage can be seen in our Assembly Lines versus Pyre Adepts game. If 3 Pyre Adepts actually trade for an Assembly Line it is real card advantage, but if you are in a board state where one player has 3 Pyre Adepts and the other plays an Assembly Line those 3 Pyre Adepts have now been answered by the 1/1 Grenadins. It is like you have gotten a 3-for-1, but it has not actually come to pass yet, making it a form of virtual card advantage rather than real card advantage. The most common manifestations of this phenomenon is when a large blocker invalidates a horde of smaller attackers. Neon discusses this in one of his earliest articles on size advantage. This is one of the many reason why having inevitability is so attractive. Your one Sandstorm Titan can effortlessly devour your opponent’s entire board if they do not have an answer. There is no real exchange of resources here, but you have generated a ton of virtual card advantage, although it should be noted that this can often be undone very easily (such as a removal spell).

There are many important cards that have the ability to generate virtual card advantage. Siraf recruits “free” cards for us to play with, meaning every activation is a “+1” in virtual cards. Crystalline Chalice delivers us both real and virtual card advantage, as we get to suit up our dorks with “virtual” Crownwatch Longswords at the cost of no cards. Even Warcry can be thought of as a virtual card advantage mechanic, as it attaches virtual weapons to our units at no additional cost. It is sometimes difficult to differentiate where real versus virtual card advantage begins and ends, but in most cases this less important than just following who is getting ahead on resources. If your opponent is able to outpace you in generating any kind of card advantage, you need to either stop them, or you need to try to actually pursue the victory.

Inevitability in Practice

Before summarizing this article lets illustrate an actual realistic implementation of this principle. Recently Chalice Control has become quite a popular deck on the Ladder and especially in the upper echelons of Master. What exactly makes this deck so powerful? It has an amazing card advantage engine (both real and virtual as mentioned above), it has the life gain to avoid being burned out, and its units will eventually invalidate its opponent’s units by out-sizing them. These are all great features, but one of its greatest strengths is that it it can simply play to not lose. While it doesn’t quite reach our earlier examples of having a deterministic inevitability, it does have realistic inevitability over practically every other deck because of the power of its late game engine. It will eventually find it’s Chalice, it will eventually have access to more resources than you and it will produce a game-state in which you can no longer ever win.

The most important lesson to take away from this becomes how do we position ourselves in a situation where both decks are playing to not lose? Our goal has to be to not lose the hardest. Instead of opting for over-the-top combos, we only need need to find ways to stop our opponents combos from mattering. If they are playing 4 Channel the Tempest and we are playing 4 Backlash, their Channel the Tempest becomes an irrelevant card. We also must recognize when our opponent has inevitability. Many people struggled against Chalice as it was first popularized because they saw themselves as the control deck, not appreciating the scale of their opponent’s inevitability. If your opponent has a more powerful late game engine you either need to break that up, or you need to pursue the win. If you can’t do either, you are guaranteed to lose.

Changing Roles

An angle of this topic that is essential to discuss is identifying when your role should change. By this I am not talking about when a control deck “turns the corner” to eventually end the game. That is usually fairly uninteresting, and can happen at your leisure in most games. What is more interesting is when a deck that that in theory is supposed to have inevitability, may need to get on the aggressive, or when an aggressive deck may suddenly find that it must try to extend out the game. Let’s talk about why this may happen.

The case of aggressive decks extending the game is more obvious to identify. Often conventional combat damage becomes impossible, either because your opponent’s board is too overwhelming, or their hand is full of removal. Although it is still true that the deck with inevitability may have the higher average power top decks, the aggressive deck may have access to some cards that offer huge burst potential. The two most obvious examples are Crystallize and Flame Blast (although Xenan Obelisk and Rally also count). If you have access to these cards in your deck, your objective sometimes becomes extending the game as long as possible. In the case of Crystallize you obviously need to keep around enough units so that you can set up lethal, but you will conserve your board as much as possible to maintain your chances of making a comeback.

For control decks, the most obvious scenario when they must get aggressive is informed by when its opponent has access to the kinds of cards discussed above. If you are playing a control deck versus Burn you may have stabilized the board, but unless you have a source of life gain you have the chance of losing to running Flame Blasts or Obliterates. Your deck may theoretically have inevitability over the opponent, but if your life total is low enough, this equation will switch on you. If you don’t have an answer to such plays it is not enough to play to not lose, you must find a way to win before your opponent.

Another possibility is when there is a threat that cannot be effectively answered. Your deck may have inevitability on paper, but your opponent has been able to find a threat that you cannot actually remove. You are now forced to switch roles and actually try to win, since your inevitability has been compromised. For example, you are playing as Feln Control against Combrei aggro. You have two Black Sky Harbingers and two Stewards of the Past in play holding off your opponent’s crew of mediocre units. Your opponent plays a Siraf and you find that your hand is filled with Annihilates, and have no answer for the Knight Chancellor. Depending on the game state, you should strongly consider trying to kill your opponent, rather than just waiting for Siraf to overpower you.

A final instance where a deck with inevitability might consider attempting to switch attacking might be if the opponent has a very slow start. Your deck may be defensive, but if your opponent is struggling with influence needs, or is extremely flooded, you may want to start putting them under pressure. This is brought up last because although it is correct to do this on occasion, it is overdone. As we stated above, attacking involves more risk than defending, so if you switch to an aggressive stance you may take on unneeded risk. If you are a defensive deck taking on an aggressive stance, you should ask yourself what you are risking. Are you using valuable removal spells on sub-optimal targets to attempt pushing damage? Are you turning the game into an unnecessary race? Are there cards that punish you for taking such a stance such as ambush units eating your attackers? Is there a chance that you have misidentified the match up? These are all important questions you should consider when attempting to start up some mediocre beat downs right out of the gate. Remember – the deck with inevitability has a powerful strategically advantage going long, so it is often better to “play it safe” rather than trying to get lucky punking an opponent out of the game.

Conclusion

Each and every matchup there will be a deck that will seek to end the game faster (the Beatdown) and there will be a deck that will seek to prolong the game (the Control). The next level of understanding the dynamics of our own deck and of particular matchups however, is when we know who has to try and win – while who only has to stop the opponent from doing so. In general, the control has a systematic strategic advantage, as they take on less risk than their opponents. The only time that we can willingly pursue the win is when we have already eliminated all potential threats that our opponent can develop. We have lowered our chance of losing to near 0%. In some cases, if our opponent has some path to victory we cannot stop, we cannot rely on our inevitability, and must instead try to win.

VSarius would like to thank to RNG Eternal for providing the opportunity and the platform for me to share my esoteric ramblings, and both Neon and VSarius would like to thank you for reading this. Be sure to share your thoughts in the comments, as we will be very happy to discuss this with you.

Until next time,

VSarius and Neon

2 thoughts on “Going Deep – Winning Versus Not Losing

  1. About a half-dozen times, I have encountered an unusual inevitability situation in draft where one player has Crystalline Chalice. Generally, this gives inevitability to the Chalice player, but if the opponent has, say, a big Combrei deck, it can happen that the Chalice player, despite and army of 4/4’s simply can’t break through for damage. Since they have generally drawn an extra 6-10 cards, it is the Combrei player who has inevitability here, since the Chalice player will deck first.

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