What's goin on in your head when play X decks?


CPA Founder, Slacker
I posted something similar to this on the Magic Arena forums because I was interested in the mindset of some folks that only play decks with infinite turn combos, lots of counters/control cards, or just people that burn through everything you own on their way to victory by any means necessary. I wanted to know what they were thinking when they played decks that basically ignored your opponent. I wanted to know their motivations. I wanted a little insight into what was going through their heads.

Any responses will be welcome (and more importantly not judged) - and I'm curious to know which way you play Magic (paper, MTGO, Magic Arena).


Nothing Special
Your question confuses me. Are you looking for the thought process on combo decks that ignore the opponent or control decks that undeniably do not ignore the opponent, but may frustrate or irritate them?


CPA Founder, Slacker
Sorry for the confusion: I'm just curious to know what people actually think. I know that when I played paper Magic with friends, we would never play anything like a Tempest/Nexus deck because everyone else would hate you. We actually showed restraint because we were concerned about the fact that we weren't just playing with other people, but were playing with actual friends. Now, in an environment like Magic Arena, you're not burdened by having to face a RL opponent and can do whatever you want without any real repercussions. So, I decided to ask people that enjoyed those kind of decks what was going through their heads...

(and then I thought "what would the folks in the CPA think?")


CPA Man in Tights, Dopey Administrative Assistant
Staff member
Of the three, I generally would play control decks (not what I only play, just of the three listed) because I like to "disrupt" my opponent's strategy/deck and see it go to pot :) Of the three ways to play Magic, I actually don't do any of them anymore although it used to paper, way back when. Now it's just here on the forums (and not even Constructed anymore).


The Tentacled One
Seems like there are a few different questions/issues involved here. Going to try to distinguish them...

Firstly, I almost exclusively play paper Magic. I am on a bit of a hiatus from Arena (briefly returned to the game in December/January, but moving house caused me to drop it again for now). I will be back, but it's not my focus. I own a huge collection of physical cards and have spent no money on Arena, so my style is very different between the two media. On Arena, I've mostly played the starting free decks. I do have an MTGO account, but pretty much gave up on it because I found I couldn't get over the clunky interface). My attitude across the three is definitely different. On Arena, I am playing bad free decks and mostly just goofing off while listening to podcasts or whatever. I expect to lose most of my games, but get annoyed when I am put up against decks with lots of rares. On MTGO, I was mostly just cussing out the clunky interface and the chess clock. When I play face-to-face, I approach different formats with different mindsets...

-A lot of my EDH gameplay, especially in the past year or so, has been with other people's decks. I go out of my way to make crazy stuff happen, even if it kills me.
-I've been playing some Canadian Highlander, and my attitude in that format is more competitive, but still highly experimental. I try to win, but I also prioritize learning, rather than gunning to win every game nonstop.
-Not really involved with Legacy much these days and mostly it's been playtesting anyway, but my attitude in Legacy is 100% competitive, doing whatever legitimate thing it takes to win.
-If it's some kind of casual Constructed, I try to read the room and I've often deliberately given people openings. While I don't know if it amounts to outright throwing games, I like to give newer players more of a chance than they might otherwise have, especially if I'm using my own decks. Like if I tutor for something, instead of just picking the card I think will win me the game, I'll pick something flashy that presents a dire threat, but with more opportunity for counterplay.
-I'm bad a Limited formats, but I go 100% competitive anyway and try to maximize my chances of winning at every turn. Because I have the draft skills of a brain-damaged neanderthal, I don't actually win. But I do everything I can to try to win.

Secondly, I actually rather like infinite turns, heavy countermagic control, burning through people, etc. I like powerful decks that do powerful things. One of my favorite, most memorable decks I played against was in a "casual decks tournament" where my friend built what was, unbeknownst to me at the time, a version of Zvi Mowshowitz's TurboLand Oath deck. He'd establish control, flood the board with extra lands, maintain a grip of countermagic, and chip away with Treetop Village. If his opponent ever played a creature, Oath of Druids into Battlefield Scrounger would set up an infinite turns loop with Time Warp and Krosan Reclamation. It was glorious and I was a bit proud of myself for beating him in the finals with my discard deck. We saw some other cool, possibly broken stuff in that "tournament." I'm into that stuff. Wrote a bunch of articles about combo decks here at the CPA. It's what I like. But there's a caveat...

For good gameplay, decks should be balanced against each other. That's the reason I analyze formats and talk about formats so much. It's why I've been trying to help establish the groundwork for Tribal multiplayer formats here. Infinite turns are fine, but only if it's understood by everyone else that you can bring that sort of thing to the table, that they should expect to either be able to stop what you're doing or to do something else equally powerful. I think I've mentioned in the Magic Memories threads that one of my favorite decks in any competitive format was "TPS" in Vintage during the mid-00's. It was a deck with a fast combo kill and disruptive tools to protect itself, but its speed and disruption were balanced by the competition, and the matchups against the other top decks in the format were intense. It'd be silly to play Vintage TPS against, say, a Standard deck. Or pretty much any casual deck. In its environment, the deck was fun. Context matters.

I think I do understand you when you mention that you and your friends wouldn't play a Nexus of Fate deck because the group wouldn't like it. Well, consider this. The last time I played with extra turns cards was when I participated in a Budget 2HG Commander tournament. I presented a brief summary in the thread about my performance in that event. Our opponents conceded when I landed a key Walk the Aeons (with the capacity to recur it multiple times under protection from my partner) while we were setting up for a kill with Approach of the Second Sun. But our opponents were themselves only a couple of turns away from setting up a kill using a Skullclamp engine. They'd already drawn tons of cards and shown that they could produce huge amounts of mana to keep a loop going, and if we hadn't started taking extra turns, they were either going to overpower us with massive (albeit not infinite) damage or win the game with Laboratory Maniac. In the context of that game, having already seen the guy across from me draw most of his deck with Skullclamp, I had no scruples at all about setting us up to take a bunch of extra turns in a row. None whatsoever. But if I'm in a casual game with friends and I know they're not prepared for that sort of thing? No thanks! No point in that. And while I know you weren't really around for them, Ferret, we had Tribal Game 14 and Tribal Game 15 here on the forums that kind of played a big part in teaching me to be more attentive to that. Because I thought that my opponents were more prepared for the broken stuff I was trying to do, but they weren't. I learned that for casual games, I'd rather make err on the other side of the spectrum. I don't really find it frustrating to show up with a weaker deck and lose against something broken, not compared to being the guy who ran the table against opponents who weren't equipped to stop him.


The Tentacled One
Thirdly, to honestly answer what's going through my head when I am piloting a broken deck, I'd like to think it's a kind of elegant, intricate probabilistic analysis of the conditions in the game. Maybe that's too self-aggrandizing, but it's probably not that far from the truth. Certainly when I was more invested in competitive Vintage/Legacy and had a playgroup/team for it, I was approaching that sort of mindset. I was focused on my lines of play and on trying to predict what lines my opponent might be taking, trying to navigate the best path toward my eventual victory. On the other hand, when I was killing people in Tribal Game 15 with my goblins, I vividly remember that my mindset was more like, "Someone cast Wrath of God! Don't let me win this thing so easily, dammit."

Like I said, I've mostly just played the free preconstructed decks on Arena. When I did play against hard control decks, including ones that could only win by decking, I made my opponent kill me, because I figure if you're playing a slow, grindy deck, you should get to play slow, grindy games instead of just having opponents concede. I think in an earlier Beta version of Arena I even built a prison deck myself and had the same mindset. I wasn't playing to get concessions from opponents. I was expecting long, tedious games. My attitude was generally experimental. A kind of "Will this lockdown work? What does it take to win this way?" investigation. But I don't think I gave anyone too hard of a time: in that iteration of Arena, hard blue/white or blue/black control seemed to dominate the ladder anyway, and almost all of my opponents were playing hard control themselves. There was also no timer in that stage of the Beta and some players would try to scam wins by walking away from their computers when they were about to lose. Seemed hilariously petty to me, but I wasn't in any hurry and I actually waited every one of those guys out (I was mostly playing after getting back home from work and I was willing to heat up some leftovers, read a book, sleeve up a deck I was working on, etc.) with no real frustration on my part although I did complain about it a lot on the Arena message boards out of principle.

Even when I did build my own decks on Arena, they were mostly red/green beatdown anyway. I've lost to Nexus of Fate loops and stuff, but generally not thought much of it. While it's not directly comparable, most of my experience that may provide some insight for your question here is on Hearthstone, not Arena. I've played on the ladder on Hearthstone a lot. I am not super-competitive about it and I mostly play the decks I like or the ones that are available to help me complete daily quests. I bring this up because I think that a lot of people who would never go to a LGS and shark casual games of Magic might be perceived to be playing cheesy, broken stuff on the Hearthstone ladder. If I am playing with friends/acquaintances in tabletop Magic, I'm generally chatting with people between games, learning about them. If players are new or playing with decks out of smaller collections, I'm going to try to account for that. I've borrowed EDH decks from friends to play at my LGS because the decks I had on hand were too overpowered in my estimation for the sort of game I was expecting to play. I actually can't remember the last time I played a casual game of tabletop Magic and turned out to play a deck that was inappropriately overpowered for the setting. I consciously avoid doing it, even moreso since the events of Tribal Games 14 & 15 (although that was online anyway, technically). It's been many years. A few months ago I did find myself with a power-packed deck against weaker decks (it was actually my "Colored Spells are for Nerds" deck for the Canadian Highlander format in a four-player game against one reasonably powerful EDH deck and two scrubby 60-card casual decks), I deliberately took actions to unite the rest of the table against me, turning the game into an impromptu handicap match (my opponents got greedy and shifted focus to each other once they thought I was reined in and I did eventually kill them all because my draws were busted and because they didn't maintain that united front). When possible in my casual games, I prefer to have a bit of an "underdog" status, although I'll also play the role of "archenemy" if it suits the occasion. I interact with my opponents a lot (not as much if it's a tournament and I'm intent on winning). I try to get to know them and make the game fun for them. But on the Hearthstone ladder, the dialog is gone and my role changes. Sometimes I'm focused on climbing to a certain rank before the end of the month. I've had some opponents get salty with me and I know that there is going to be the perception that I'm playing a "cancer deck" sometimes. But I don't really care. I imagine it's worst when I've been playing on the Wild ladder all month and then happen to acquire the cards I need for a cool Standard deck I want to try, so I switch over to the Standard ladder at some very low rank and smash bad decks because of how low I am on the ladder. But even though I know that's what's going on, I don't really feel bad for my opponents. They have to put up with it for one game and then they can go right back to doing whatever goofy nonsense they were doing before.

I think in tabletop Magic, there's the understanding that you're joining games with players/groups voluntarily and in casual settings it's widely understood that there should be some kind of rapport, some consensus on the kinds of decks/games that are involved. The people who take the time to construct competitive decks for Legacy/EDH/Modern/whatever have an appreciation for their own formats and they don't see any point to ambushing unprepared casual tables with their decks that were designed to compete in a different environment. But on the Hearthstone ladder, and I suspect on the Arena ladder that I've been neglecting, you're letting a machine do the matchmaking for you. If the machine sets you up against an opponent who can't handle your deck or doesn't want to play against whatever you're doing, then that's the machine's fault, not yours.

Well, that got a bit long. Anyway, if you're on the ladder, your opponents might be playing Nexus of Fate loops or whatever because they think that's what they can win with and they want to climb the ladder. They don't consider it to be their job to make sure you have a fun gaming experience. The matchmaking algorithms pitted them against you, so it's not the same as if you were playing casual games with your friends. Now, if it's nonladder, I do think that requires a different attitude. Not a mindreader and I might be missing something, but I know that when I play in the "casual" mode on Hearthstone, I play very differently. Usually I'm trying to complete an annoying quest and I ignore winning/losing while trying to complete my quest. I had this obnoxious quest to play a ton of "Divine Shield" minions, so I completed it and even though I could have killed my opponent, I kept passing the turn and to let my opponent complete his/her own quest.

Fourthly, while your qualms seem to be with competitive decks generally and you've given multiple, disparate examples, I've noticed that different styles are pet peeves for different people. Some people hate countermagic and seem to suspect that anyone who plays blue control is a jerk trying to get some sort of sadistic kick out of the game. Other people enjoy countermagic and consider blue control to be the strategic pinnacle of the game, the best place to leverage knowledge and proper decision-making. One of the great things about Magic is that it generally lets all of those people with different tastes explore the game in the ways that they want to. I suspect that you realize this. But I've seen other fail to grasp that important point in the past. Your qualm with these decks on Arena does seem kind of similar. There's the common feature of "Other people are playing what I don't want to play against." And yeah, in a casual game, even if it's not with your friends, you are engaged with people and you might be working in concert with your opponents to maintain a fun environment to play in. Arena doesn't really provide the same tools for that.

Perhaps I'm assuming that this is all ladder and really it's not. Because I think that makes a big difference. I'd think that if you put me in a situation where all of my friends are placed on a ladder with me and whoever has the best record gets the most prizes, I'm going to do whatever I think will win. Doesn't matter that they're my friends. I'm going to try to beat them as ruthlessly as I can. Because that's how a ladder works. That's the point.


Nothing Special
You know, when Ferret first posted this topic, my reply was going to be "Cue Oversoul response in 3... 2... 1..." but then I wanted to quick answer first but then I realized that I needed clarity before responding and thus my actual reply.

Anyway, now I'm trapped down here, under this wall of text. I'll try to climb out later.