Magic and the Art of Koan
In order to defeat your control opponent, you’re probably going to have to resolve a decisive spell. I’m going to talk about what decisive spells are, and how you can help yourself maneuver into a position to resolve one against a control opponent determined to stop just that.
The enlightened disciple Yanguan Qi’an was told the story of how a young student had asked the teacher Damei, “what is the essential meaning of Buddhism?” Damei had answered, “there is no essential meaning.”
Upon hearing this, dissatisfied with the answer, Yanguan promptly commented, “it is one coffin with two corpses.”
If you have missed the previous posts in this series:
No good question is answered simply.
The relationship between the control player and his opponent is like that of a Zen student and master, respectively.
Like a student, the control player needs to be focused and alert, he cannot let any detail escape him. Most importantly, he must have an open mind, because he needs to be prepared to answer any question his opponent presents, and cannot become too set in his ways.
Like a curmudgeonly Zen master, the control player’s opponent must construct a koan, a frustratingly obtuse unanswerable question. And if those don’t work, he might just have to knock his student on the back of his head with a big stick… or Dragonlord Atarka.
In the world of Zen, students often defeat their master’s koans with creative and often nonsensical answers as a way around the ineffectuality of more typical answers.
In the world of Magic, the control player’s vocabulary is limited to the cards in his deck, and to some extent just his hand. Because of this, if the opponent sequences correctly, he can often present questions that are truly unanswerable… the control player cannot just answer with nonsense, as Yanguan answered Damei’s question.
A decisive spell is just this, a koan. It requires a specific, and difficult to conjure answer. It is the way that the opponent stumps the control player.
In our pursuit for enlightenment against Esper Dragons, there is a Great Teacher, and no, it isn’t Ojutai. Her disciples have aptly named her Worldwaker…
One Coffin with Two Corpses
Everything in Magic is context specific.
It makes sense, then, that what is or is not a decisive spell depends on the context of the control deck in question.
So then, what makes Nissa, Worldwaker such a good decisive spell? First, we look to the removal spells available to the control deck. For Nissa, Worldwaker there is only one kind of clean answer, a good old-fashioned counterspell (Silumgar’s Scorn or Dissolve).
Once the Worldwaker hits the board, she immediately generates value by creating a hasty 4/4 trampler. A Crux of Fate will wipe the 4/4’s and leave the Worldwaker behind; a Perilous Vault will take care of Nissa, but misses the 4/4 due to its nonland clause. Further, many green decks are able to take advantage of things like Genesis Hydra to get her onto the board even through counterspells.
In the words of Yanguan: one coffin with two corpses.
In Magic terms: an inevitable two for one.
A Twofold Path
Decisive spells are going to come in two non-exclusive forms: cards that are difficult to answer cleanly, and cards that generate value immediately.
Part of what makes the Worldwaker so good is the way she falls right in the middle of these two camps, and very often the best anti-control cards do just that.
Goblin Rabblemaster is a great example of a card that falls exclusively into the latter camp. It generates value the turn you play it and can run away with the game incredibly fast if unanswered, but it dies to a gust of wind.
Pearl Lake Ancient sits at the other end of the spectrum, it’s nearly impossible to answer cleanly, but generates very little value, unless you count those scrylands you’re returning to your hand.
To reiterate, which cards fall under the term decisive spells depends on the deck you’re playing. Against Esper Dragons, Stormbreath Dragon is just another beatstick, against Abzan Control, he’s a migraine.
And Then Find More Grains
How do I get my decisive spells to resolve, you might be asking?
“When asked how many paths reach enlightenment, the monk kicked a heap of sand. ‘Count,’ he smiled, ‘and then find more grains.”
There’s always the old fashioned way: keep playing stuff until your opponent either taps out or runs out of cards.
This is usually how the green and red mages deal with control players. They play stuff and then play more stuff, and the control opponent is forced to answer each threat. The proactive player hopes to reach a point where the control player will run out of answers.
For these players, the decisive spells will often be cards that don’t win the game on their own, but instead enable the proactive player to simply play more cards. Cards like Outpost Siege and Den Protector fall under this category. One way to get these spells to resolve is to commit heavily to the board (but not over commit, we’ll talk more about that next week) and force them to tap out for something like Crux of Fate. This gives you an opening next turn to punish the control player, you want to keep a decisive spell in hand for just these very occasions.
Black mages have a very specific tool that can help them to get their decisive spells to resolve, Thoughtseize effects. As I said before, the control player is limited in his vocabulary by the cards available in his hand. If you can take away a crucial spell, even a relatively innocuous card can take over the game given time. This is why you’ll see cards like Duress in many sideboards. Beyond this, black often gets powerful card advantage spells like Read the Bones to help them cast more spells.
White mages sort of have the short end of the stick as far as helping their decisive spells resolve, they don’t have many ways of gaining card advantage, nor any ways to attack their opponents hand. Decks like UW heroic, however, showcase white’s ability to protect its creatures once they’ve hit the board, with cards like Gods Willing and Ajani’s Presence.
Blue Mages have it the best, as always. Not only do they get their own counterspells, but they also get raw card advantage spells like Dig Through Time. One notable card is Stubborn Denial. Decks like Temur, that are able to take advantage of it’s Ferocious ability, can use this one mana Negate to great effect in navigating their spells to resolution.
I’m going to leave you with a sort of Magic Koan.
It’s game one in an Esper Dragons mirror. We’re the player that pulled the trigger first by playing a late game Silumgar, the Drifting Death, we win the ensuing counter-war but become tapped out in the process, and light on cards, leaving only an ineffectual Bile Blight in hand. My opponent plays his own Silumgar, the Drifting Death leaving himself with three cards in hand, and five mana open. Everyone is at 17 life, let’s say.
He ships it back to our turn and we draw a card. Thoughtseize. We slam down the Seize, and he thinks about it for a moment before countering with a Silumgar’s Scorn, leaving three mana open, only one blue source.
We move to combat and attack in with the Silumgar, his trigger is on the stack. Now our opponents thinking, what can he have? His head is filled with a cacophony of ideas, but one voice rises to the top, “eh, there’s no way he can punish me for blocking, and if I block here, I can win the Silumgar race.” So he blocks, nothing happens.
We move to main phase two… and Bile Blight our own Silumgar the Drifting Death. Our opponent stares down at his cards in horror. We sit there, smug and satisfied. Not only did we remove his Silumgar, but we made use of an otherwise dead card in the matchup. This is it, enlightenment!
But then he Bile Blights his own Silumgar in response.
It doesn’t get much more Zen than that.