The Brewery: Tipping Costs
With the rate at which M13 is hitting the streets, I presume it will likely be completely spoiled by the time this article is published, but I do very much enjoy the opportunity to produce a theory piece once every few months, and I will be embracing said opportunity this week. The Brewing process is one in which many of us participate regularly, but one that I'm sure very few of us understand at a fundamental level. I don't claim to be a master of brewing, nor do I feel that one exists within the community at large, but I do know for a fact that there are a few individuals that are truly a cut above the rest of us when it comes to understanding deck building at an organic level. The reason for this is an elevated understanding of the core concepts that drive the major archetypes in Magic, and consequently a better gauge of each card's potential individual power level. Most players are capable of reaching this level of proficiency, and as such, most players feel as though they can accurately identify the cards (and by extension the decks) that will be successful every season. The perceived mastery of this skill is one of the most limiting factors of each player's potential, and if you constantly find yourself wondering why people like Sam Black, Patrick Chapin, and Gerry Thompson can be steps ahead of others, you have to be willing to accept the fact that assessing the quality of cards is only about 20% of the equation. The rest of the equation involves understanding how the context of a given card influences its power level, and beyond that, how the archetypal considerations like Tipping Cost can make even the most powerful cards unplayable in a given decklist. Tipping Cost is one of a few concepts that I introduced in a previous article, which I recommend for everyone when you've got a few spare minutes to read it.
I introduced the concept of Tipping Cost in that article as the Converted Mana Cost (CMC) at which the deck expects to take control of the game (or in the case of aggro, win the game), and I also introduced it as being among the most complex of all archetypal considerations. The complexity rises from the fact that the Tipping Cost of a given deck is both pre-determined by the architect and simultaneously dependent upon the opposing deck. Not to be confused with a deck's critical turn(s), Tipping Cost implies a Do or Die scenario, and if you hope to have successful brews, it is critical to fully understand the concept of a Tipping Cost. Each card you choose to play in your decks has an effect on your deck's tipping cost, and as such, a deck's target tipping cost and its actual tipping cost can be vastly different, thus leading to a disparity which results in unsuccessful decks.
Most aggressive decks will look to have a tipping cost of three or four, and most control decks will target a tipping cost of four or five. In order to illustrate the concept of Tipping Cost, I will employ the debate I've been waging with regard to the proper employment of cards in the Red/Black aggro archetype. Any comparisons or concept illustrations in this particular article will refer to either of the two following lists, so please familiarize yourselves with them before we move forward with the content:
Deck 1 (My BR Aggro List):
Deck 2 (Stock BR Zombies):
To first clarify the definition of Tipping Cost from an aggressive perspective, it is the CMC at which the deck will attempt to end the game. This means that the point at which an aggressive deck reaches its tipping cost (whatever it may be) should most assuredly come before the opponent is capable of reaching his or her tipping cost. An aggro deck's ability to reach its tipping cost before the opponent reaches his or hers is its most important attribute, and the cards that allow a player to do that are the ones that should be played. Both of the decks above make use of quite a few of the same cards, most notably Geralf's Messenger, Diregraf Ghoul, Gravecrawler, and Tragic Slip. Both decks have a target Tipping Cost of four mana, which is a very conventional choice for aggressive decks. The decks differ, however, in a few critical areas, and understanding the differences might shed some light on which deck or contingent of cards better suits the deck's target Tipping Cost.
The differences alluded to above each highlight one of the main components of Tipping Cost, which conveniently makes the comparison of these two decks the perfect way to illustrate this concept. The first major difference is the variety of cards at or above the decks' intended Tipping Cost of four (most notably Aristocrat vs. Hellrider). The second difference is the number of lands, with deck two opting to run only 23 against the 24 lands contained in deck one. Third, each deck has chosen a completely different mid-game; and finally, the decks opt for completely different removal suites. These differences might appear to be a matter of a strategic difference, and in fact they are, but one that not only affects the direction of the deck, but also the interaction with its target Tipping Cost.
The relationship between Tipping Costs and critical turns
I mentioned above that it's critically important to the understanding of this concept that one doesn't confuse a deck's Tipping Cost with its critical turn(s). The critical turns for an aggressive deck are turns three and four, as those are the turns on which the decks will typically be delivering the most points of damage (usually about 60-75% of the opponent's life total). Understanding Tipping Cost and how it relates to critical turns is one of the easiest things to do, as the deck's intended Tipping Cost and critical turns should be within touching distance of one another. For example, deck one above has a Tipping Cost of four and critical turns of three and four, and an outside example of this illustration is perhaps the purest of aggro decks in the format- Tempered Steel, which has a tipping cost of three and critical turns three and four (barring the nut draw). Deck two, however, isn't exactly the best example of parity between Tipping Cost and Critical Turns. While its intended Tipping Cost is four, its critical turns actually span into turns five and six, as most people piloting the deck will tell you. In addition to this, the deck fails to win the game with regularity upon reaching its Tipping Cost, which goes nowhere in helping to define the deck as aggressive. The reason deck two fails to achieve parity between its Tipping Cost and its Critical turns is directly related to many of the differences illustrated in the paragraphs above, so let's examine how each of these choices has caused disparity in deck two.
First, deck two opts to run Falkenrath Aristocrat instead of Hellrider as its four CMC closer, which implies that the deck intends to be able to cast Aristocrat and win the game almost exclusively because of that fact. As many of the people who have played the deck can tell you, this will almost never be the case, and only in a perfect world with turn 1 bear, turn 2 artist, turn 3 messenger, turn 4 aristocrat and no blocks from the opponent can the deck deliver 20 points of damage by the end of the turn on which it hits its Tipping Cost.
In aggressive decks, the kill condition ought to be one that is capable of ending the game independently, but more efficiently in the event that the rest of the game has gone in your favor. Both Hellrider and Falkenrath Aristocrat fit that description, but because of Hellrider's more decidedly immediate impact on the table, he is actually the more efficient of the two in terms of kill conditions, meaning that you will win more of the games with deck one than you will with deck two upon reaching your Tipping Cost. Don't let me be Judge, Jury, and Executioner; I assure you that there are numerous individuals in your local area who have attempted to play the Aristocrat Zombie deck- survey any number of them and ask them how sure they are of winning the game when they resolve Aristocrat. Their answers will likely be something like “well, it depends on how many Artists or Messengers are on the board when it comes down.” By conventional standard, aggro decks do not want to rely on the presence of one or more specific cards to win games.
The concept of Tipping Cost most assuredly relates to the deck's critical turns, and for as long as cards like Blood Artist and Falkenrath Aristocrat create disparity between Tipping Cost and critical turns, decks like Artistocrat Zombies will fall short of the mark against decks that are capable of closing the gap on turns three and four. Card choices like Blood Artist and Falkenrath Aristocrat force the deck into a combo shell, and dictate other card choices as well. By comparison, cards like Highborn Ghoul and the new Crimson Muckwader are non-descript dudes that affect the game in the exact same way as one another, but differently than Blood Artist. The main purpose of Highborn and other mid-game spells is to deliver damage, and you have certainty with regard to the amount of potential damage cards like that provide. Blood Artist has the potential to contribute 0-4 damage by the end of turn four, and it is entirely dependent upon the other spells you've cast by that point in the game. Highborn Ghoul, however, will have contributed a definite four damage by the end of turn four if he is still alive. This is a very crude example of how your card choices ought to coincide with your deck's primary strategy with regard to its Tipping Cost. The primary strategy of an aggro deck is to win the game by the time it reaches its Tipping Cost, so all of the cards it plays to that point should be the ones that are most efficient in terms of allowing that to happen.
Next, the deck's mana will contribute a great amount to the parity or disparity between critical turns and Tipping Costs, as the amount of mana or mana ramp in your deck will dictate the average turn on which you can expect to hit your Tipping Cost. Playing fewer than 23 lands implies a deck that has a Tipping cost at three or below in most cases, and playing more than 24 lands typically implies a Tipping Cost closer to five. With the teetering quantity for aggro decks falling between 22-24 lands, it's likely that the relationship between Tipping Cost and Critical Turns is the factor upon which most decisions are made in terms of the final land count for aggressive decks. Decks with a tipping cost of four and critical turns of three and four ought to opt for 24 lands to make as certain as possible that the deck has four lands in play on turn four. Decks like deck one, whose tipping cost is four, but whose critical turns are closer to five and six have the luxury of dropping to 23 lands and running the risk of not hitting the 4th until turn six.
Finally, the removal suite from deck two is likely the point at which I can make the most contributions to the archetype from the perspective of Tipping Costs and Critical Turns. Including cards like Geth's Verdict signifies the desire to clear dudes out of the way, irrelevant of quality. Decks adopting this strategy typically attempt to achieve one of two goals: stall the game in order to reach one's Tipping Cost, or clear any potential blockers in order to maximize damage as quickly as possible. Because of the discussions above, we've actually determined that deck two isn't attempting to deliver damage as quickly and reliably as possible, so Geth's Verdict must be in the deck to stall games. It's not in the nature of non-control decks to stall games, so Geth's Verdict is actually decidedly out of place in this deck. In its place would likely fit a more expensive removal spell like Bonfire of the Damned, which also fits with the deck's critical turns being higher, and defines the deck as slightly more midrange than aggro. Bonfire of the Damned is the most characteristically midrange card, so it fits well into the gameplan of the Aristocrat decks.
You'll remember from the previous article that one of the reasons to brew is to come up with new lists, but another reason entirely is to examine the identity of a deck in order to see if there are any changes worth making to maintain the most efficient form of the list. The only other card that feels out of place in deck two from the looks of its Tipping Cost to Critical Turn relationship is Fume Spitter, who would likely be better as a creature like Vampire Nighthawk, Butcher Ghoul, Skirsdag High Priest, or even Pyreheart Wolf, which all have CMCs less than the Tipping Cost and yet still tend to affect the game more on turns four through six when deck two is expected to hit its stride.
How to determine your deck's Tipping Cost and the things that alter it
In all of the examples above, I was working under the assumption that the Tipping Cost of each deck is four, but how did I arrive at that number? I mentioned that aggressive decks typically want a Tipping Cost of three or four, but why wasn't deck one's Tipping Cost five instead of four? What's the point of including cards in your deck if their CMC is higher than the Tipping Cost if that's the CMC at which you plan to win the game?
Each architect has a Tipping Cost in mind when building a deck, whether that person knows it or not. The exact cost is usually directly associated with the card or cards that the player expects to use to win most of his or her games. In previous formats, the Tipping Cost of many of my Red decks was actually three, even though I had cards that cost four and my primary win conditions were Goblin Guide (1) and Shrine of Burning Rage (2). The deck's tipping cost was three because at that CMC I was most capable of ending the game, whether because I could cast more than one spell per turn or because I could actually activate Shrine for the win. I didn't lean on any particular three CMC activity outside of Shrine, but I knew that hitting three mana and having access to plays like EOT Incinerate-Bolt or Devastating Summons/Goblin Bushwhacker Combo after delivering 6-10 points on the previous two turns usually meant I was going to win, making the CMC of three my Tipping Cost.
Tipping Cost will most often pivot on some marquee spell or spells from an aggro perspective, and decks with Tipping Costs of three are usually hyper-aggressive or tribally oriented because three is the most common CMC of Lords. Aggro decks that don't fit one of those two categories should often fall into having a Tipping Cost of four, and should be built as such. A fundamental disagreement about the Human archetype right now is whether or not to run things like Hero of Bladehold and/or Angelic Destiny. The debate over which of the two schools of thought is correct has been one which concerns Tipping Cost predominantly, so how does this article affect your views with regard to that archetype? Do you think there are some changes that should be made to the deck to make it more competitive? Outside of Tempered Steel, there isn't really an aggro deck in the format with a Tipping Cost of three, so could Humans potentially fill that void, or is it better off joining the rat race of CMC four aggro decks?
Answering the question above requires a deeper understanding of the context that drives a deck's ideal Tipping Cost. First, your deck's ideal Tipping Cost is almost exclusively determined by the decks against which it is playing. Once you've built your deck to take advantage of its targeted Tipping Cost, you've got to be prepared to analyze whether or not the target Tipping Cost and the cards you've selected will allow you to win games against the gauntlet. From the aggro perspective, this means that you will have to reach your Tipping Cost before the opponent, and it also means that you must win the game if you do reach your Tipping Cost within your critical turn window. In order for this to happen, your critical turn window cannot overlap with your opponent's, and that will almost never happen. When it doesn't, it means that your deck will have to adapt to your opponent reaching his or her Tipping Cost, because it is going to happen in most games. Right now, most decks that aren't aggro decks have critical turns between four and six, and their Tipping Cost against aggro is almost unanimously four. The spells at four that most decks use to take control away from the aggro player are Day of Judgment, lucky Bonfire or Terminus, and Huntmaster of the Fells. Other cards like Timely Reinforcements, Lingering Souls, Slagstorm, Whipflare, and Blade Splicer are ways in which those decks are attempting to adjust their Tipping Costs to beat the aggro matchups. Because there aren't any aggressive decks in the format that are capable of setting the Tipping Cost below three, it proves impossible to race these decks to their Tipping Costs. It is for this reason that so few aggressive decks achieve dynastic dominance of formats without ban-able cards (see Disciple of the Vault and Umezawa's Jitte) to back them up. Eventually decks find a way to disrupt aggro Tipping Costs and dethrone them unless those aggro decks can find a way to push tipping costs to two or less.
The answer for aggro decks, when dealing with altered Tipping Cost against control, is to maintain a tipping cost within one CMC of your deck's original intent, but rather than allowing your opponents to change their critical turn to turn three, force their turn three to provide less than maximum value. In doing so, you will also be able to affect their fourth and fifth turns as well, which will ultimately cause a vast disparity between your opponent's new tipping cost and new critical turn(s). Take advantage of the gaps when you can comfortably hit your tipping cost and recover from their poorly-timed response sequence. It will likely create scenarios like those in which the opponent has to tap out for a sweeper instead of entering their win sequence, which buys you time to reach Zealous Conscripts, or whatever your new Tipping Cost spell might be (I chose to include Zealous Conscripts in this example because to me, it exemplifies the exact change of Tipping Cost that aggro decks ought to embrace).
Tipping Costs and Card Selection
To summarize the mess above, it's quite clear that Tipping Cost is a factor that is not to be taken lightly when considering which cards you'll be including in your brews. The concepts I put forth above aren't incredibly novel, but certainly are examples of situations that people encounter with stunning regularity when building or modifying decks or looking for saucy tech. Odds are extremely good that a strong understanding of the Tipping Cost principle will yield much stronger choices for sideboards and maindecks alike, whether you're just getting started with the brewing process or if you're a salty veteran.
Looking at each card from the perspective of Tipping Cost is something that will take a visceral understanding of the game, but it's certainly something that each of you can learn to do without any outside coaching. Ask yourself a few simple questions about each card, including what its role would be in each of the archetypes in which you are considering playing it. On which turns will this card have the most effect, and are those the turns on which you need the desired effect? What happens if the card shows up three or more turns before or after its ideal appearance? Is this card's CMC above or below the deck's targeted Tipping Cost, and if it's above, is it a card that tends to close games on its own? If it's below the Tipping Cost, does it advance the strategy more efficiently than other cards with the same effect or CMC? Finally, can I afford to get this same effect at a different CMC and free up the space here for something that might fit better with the general scheme?
Part of becoming a better player and by extension a better architect is understanding the fact that there is always room for improvement of one's skills and knowledge pertaining to both the game and the fundamentals of each archetype. Like I said, I don't claim to be a master brewer, but I certainly consider myself a perpetual student of archetypal philosophy, and I hope that this article articulated the concepts well enough to help some of you elevate your game to another level. In the interest of courtesy with regard to length, I've decided to abbreviate today's discussion and keep to the concept of Tipping Cost from both the bird's-eye and aggro perspectives. I have plans to follow up very soon with more detailed applications and examples, as well as the explanation of the concept and its implications for the Control, Combo, and Hybrid archetypes. I hope to hear from all of you in the comments this week; thanks for reading as always.