Like a lot of up-and-coming tournament players in the mid-1990s I used to idolize a member of Team Deadguy named Dave Price. Dave was the rare elite Magic Pro who specialized in beatdown decks. He won his first PTQ with a Dragon Whelp Sligh deck in 1997, then ran the tables at US Nationals that year with his famous Lava Hounds deck; though he would not make his US Nationals Top 8 for a year (again with red beatdown).
While control-oriented mages became enamored of infinite Corpse Dance-fueled Bottle Gnomes and Tradewind Rider locks, Dave navigated their one-power Islands on The Boat, going on to win Pro Tour Los Angeles 1998 with Jackal Pups, Wastelands, and Cursed Scrolls. Soon after, and after college, Dave moved to New York to become the second editor of The Magic Dojo.
I succeeded Dave on that post and became actual friends with him the next year. We hung out at a lot of Grand Prixes in 1999, most of which involved Dave going undefeated on Day Ones. He made his way through Illusions of Grandeur-Donate, Oath of Druids, and Fireblast decks with his Phyrexian Negators to make Top 4 of Grand Prix Seattle that year. I was, I think, understandably dazzled. How was Dave -- with seemingly weaker spells and a slower clock -- getting by opponents who had not only more raw power, but threats and answers that seemed tailor-made to Crush his Carnophages?
The answer was as simple as it was profound:
“Some people look at beatdown decks and they see something simple. They look at the cards in their hands and play them. I try to be more thoughtful and play beatdown as carefully as you would a combo or control deck.”
It is with Dave's tutelage in the back of my mind that I approached this week's Make the Play Monday - BBB.
When we left off on Monday our [as-yet unknown] opponent had already shipped to Paris twice.
From our side of the table we had a pretty good opening hand:
For reference -- and for purposes of this hypothetical -- this Big Black Beatdown was our Weapon of Choice:
1) On the play, what play should we make on the first turn?
2) And what would our plan be for the second turn?
Let's see what Celebrity Guest Tom Martell had to say about this situation:
“The hand is an easy keep -- It has basically everything you want. You have a one drop, cheap disruption, removal and a good three drop creature.
“Turn one is certainly just Rakdos Cackler, go. You want to put immediate pressure on your opponent, especially when they are already on five cards. This also sets up the perfect turn two play of Thoughtseize to see their hand and then play Temple of Silence with the additional information of what you want to find to counter their plan.
“The other two first turn plays are worse. You would rather cast Thoughtseize on turn two as they will have drawn an extra card so you get more information and there aren't any one-drops you care about taking. Also, since you have two one-drops in hand, there is no reason to play the Temple on turn one as you are a huge, huge favorite to just play Rakdos Cackler / Thoughtseize on turn two regardless of your draw.”
So if you went for the “obvious” opener, Tom agreed with you!
Rather than being just a Magic: The Puzzling I made up, this was actually the first turn of an actual MTGO tournament queue I played in a week or two ago.
I tanked quite a long time on the turn. In hindsight I must empathize with my opponent for a sec; the poor chap had just shipped twice to Paris and probably just wanted to get on with the process of dying but I let the clock tick down considering the various lines on what many of you probably considered a straightforward first turn. But rather than snapping to a seemingly obvious conclusion, I wanted to put the kind of thought into my turn that Dave proscribed fifteen or so years ago as he set his Negators trampling into The Red Zone.
From my perspective, the opponent had already shipped to five. So obviously -- and especially on the play -- I had quite a pre-game starting advantage.
Who among us hasn't come back to win from five?
Who hasn't lost to an opponent who has double-mulligan'd?
I wanted to not just make the most mana efficient first turn play, but the play -- and plays -- most likely to retain my pre-game lead.
That said our hand is quite powerfully stacked against an opponent who has shipped to five! Thoughtseize is generally a top-four card in Standard, and its ability to punish the resources of a player who has already mulligan'd is just gravy. But paired with a Lifebane Zombie, too? Especially a RG opponent with lots of big green creatures (but also RW opponents with Boros Reckoner or the most hated BW opponents with Blood Baron of Vizkopa). Lifebane Zombie isn't just card advantage, but capable of preemptively undoing an opponent's big defensive turn. Together, and against an opponent who has shipped to Paris twice, our hand with its double discard has the potential to knock the opponent into a “mulligan to three” situation if we play them right.
If the opponent hadn't shipped (to five or otherwise) I would have gone automatically with the Rakdos Cackler like Tom, but the idea of holding on to the lead (not just creating a lead) made the alternate line increasingly interesting.
To me this gives us some incentive to starting on Thoughtseize. Why Thoughtseize instead of Rakdos Cackler? If the opponent has something along the lines of two Thoughtseizes [and we start on Cackler] he actually has a decent shot of getting out of this; even Thoughtseize + Syncopate works. He takes our Thoughtseize (preventing us from knowing the rest of his hand), blanks our second turn, and then takes or counters our Lifebane Zombie. Sure, we have a Cackler coming in for two, but the opponent is basically a Divination or Read the Bones out of getting on even footing, at which point he basically has to deal with one or two 2/2 creatures.
This is our possible range of plays:
In any situation where the opponent doesn't have at least one Thoughtseize I put Rakdos Cackler ahead of Thoughtseize; Rakdos Cackler taps the same amount of mana and gets two more points of damage in relative to Swamp → Thoughtseize followed by Temple of Silence → Rakdos Cackler. Yes, we can force an opponent to discard something along the lines of Shock, but with Lifebane Zombie and Mutavault, it's not like protecting the life of our Rakdos Cackler is the most important thing we can do with this hand.
The next best play is Temple of Silence; you know, the typical play you would make in Standard with a deck that was not stocked to the highest shelf with quality one drops.
Mutavault -- the play I advocated in our first ever Make the Play Monday / Flores Rewards Friday - Burn Baby Burn (maybe) is substantially worse here. If we go Mutavault we just don't do any of our awesome one mana plays and then (presuming we attack with the Mutavault, which is like the only reason we would play it on the first turn I can think of, given this seven) we still don't play any of our awesome one mana spells and we don't play our Temple, meaning Temple might be our third turn land, meaning we have no guarantee we can play Lifebane Zombie on the third turn. All-in-all we might win against a two-down opponent with Mutavault, but we are making our mana unnecessarily ragged and probably don't do anything substantial until around turn four. The worst thing about the Mutavault line is that its end goal (get in for two) happens if we just drop the Cackler on the first turn.
Ultimately I made the same play with the same plan as Tom.
So what happened?
I played Rakdos Cackler.
Then something really interesting happened:
He conceded in response.
What a super pro move!
Seeing my pretty strong hand (against his resource stripped one), he put two and two together and decided his likelihood of winning the match went up if he had the information advantage in Game Two (he obviously decided Game One was already over at this point).
Swamp → Thoughtseize is not much to go on.
I guessed he was Monoblack Devotion and (among other things) sided out my Lifebane Zombies. It turns out he was BG and Lifebane Zombie would have been awesome against his Sylvan Caryatid, Nemesis of Mortals, and Jarad, Lich Lord. He pretty much crushed me in Game Two with Whip of Erebos.
For a match that started with one player so badly behind, it ended up an interesting game of feints and misdirection. Also all's well that ends well because I won. :)
● For agreeing with me, Kris Stahle earns a $25 TCGplayer gift certificate. ● For agreeing with Tom, Sean Gold earns a $25 TCGplayer gift certificate.
Congratulations to Kris Stahle and Sean Gold, and thanks to all of you for playing! Have a great weekend. Make sure you send a message to our Facebook page - MTGatTCGplayer - to claim your prizes!
Returning Celebrity Guest Tom Martell currently commands one of the highest Constructed win percentages on the Pro Tour. He won Pro Tour Gatecrash last year and Grand Prix Sacramento earlier this year. Both Tom and his mother are devoted fans of the Top 8 Magic podcast.