Roots: On the Clock with Magic’s Nine Deck Archetypes
By George Colby aka Mr. Safety
It is quite a surprise to discover that there are only nine good decks you can build in Magic. You read that right, just nine. A deck may be built deck that is seemingly original, but it still falls into a predetermined category that has already been established. If it doesn’t, it is likely that however it was altered, knowingly or unknowingly, actually makes the deck worse. If you’ve been following Roots for a while now, and I sincerely hope you have, there have been several specific deck archetypes that have been presented. To date, these have been defined:
1) Control (Empire’s Roots)
2) Pure aggro/Stompy (Stompy Roots)
3) Aggro-control (Snake-Snag Roots)
4) Combo (Bloody Roots, Storms of the Past)
5) Prison (Prison Roots)
6) Mid-range (Smallpox Roots, Eternal Profanity)
I am going to further add to that list the final three deck types that exist in Magic:
7) Sligh (today’s deck)
8) Toolbox (next week)
9) Tinker/Mana-Ramp (stay tuned!)
You may think to that there are many more deck options out there, but in reality, every deck is either a good or bad version of one of those nine archetypical decks. It is sometimes possible to make a hybrid deck by pulling from two different archetype categories, but that is quite rare. It takes a specific metagame and a daring deckbuilder to attempt this. I’m going to stop for a second here and list out today’s vocabulary.
Magic Vocabulary Insert
Sligh – this deck got its name from a player named Paul Sligh who used it in the early days of Magic. The premise is a deck with cheap, fast threats in the early game and a hefty amount of burn to clear blockers and finish the opponent off. The most common version is mono-red (sometimes known as ‘Red Deck Wins’ or ‘RDW’ for short) but there have been several color splashes over the years with varying degrees of success. The Zoo deck I used in a past article is an example of a tri-colored sligh deck.
Haterator – this is a deck that is tailor-made to beat the other decks that are popular in the metagame. It has one clear goal: play all the cards that make life miserable for the popular strategies. Hatebears are usually present in healthy doses along with problematic control elements and ways of shutting other decks down cold. A future article on Haterator-style decks is likely. For now, realize that it usually falls into a setup of an aggro-control deck, a prison deck, or a hybrid of the two.
Enigma – a deck that takes a metagame completely by surprise. Typically this is a combo deck with a heretofore unknown game winning combo, but occasionally it is a traditional deck with some new interactions that are completely unprepared for in the metagame. A recent example of this was when Luis Scott Vargas played a naya-colored aggro deck in the standard season of 2010 at Pro Tour San Diego. He was using the hot new card Stoneforge Mystic to dig out powerful equipment like Behemoth Sledge and Basilisk Collar. This wasn’t something other folks missed at all, several white weenie decks were doing the same thing with Trusty Machete and Basilisk Collar. Vargas’ genius came from his sideboard which included four Cunning Sparkmages, which became a machine gun of removal against anything creature based with Basilisk Collar (which was just about all of the metagame. This was the hey-day of Jund in standard.) If you haven’t heard of Luis Scott Vargas before (known in the community as LSV) do yourself a favor and research his career. This isn’t the first time, or the last, that he will take a metagame by surprise.
The available card pool is a strong indicator of which deck is likely the one to beat. Knowing the weaknesses and strengths of a deck, and by extension the cards it uses, is the best way to take advantage of a metagame. Begin by looking at the raw power of the cards available in the pool. Are its most powerful spells in-line with Jace, the Mind Sculptor and Stoneforge Mystic? Perhaps the best thing you can do is get to six mana as soon as possible to land Primeval Titan? Can you make a massive chain of spells with Past in Flames? Knowing the top-shelf cards and understanding how those cards win games is a great start to understanding a format. It doesn’t give you all the necessary information, but it’s a good place to start your analysis.
So which of the nine decks is the best to play, i.e. which decks beat which other decks? I’m going to introduce you to the theory of the metagame clock. In the early days of Magic it was discovered that some archetypes are good at beating other archetypes. The first three deck types were aggro, control, and combo. Follow the counter-clockwise arrows to see which deck is favored to beat another. A rudimentary metagame clock looks like this:
Aggro beats control, control beats combo, and combo beats aggro. On a basic level, this is quite true. Real life is much more complicated. There are nine deck types that are available to us that all have significantly unique qualities that cannot be pigeon-holed into any one of the foundational three archetypes. Looking at the Mid-range archetype, which category does it belong to? It has some aggressive creatures but it also has powerful spells that it uses to control the game state. So which is it? The answer is that it is both aggro and control. Not aggro-control in the same sense as the namesake archetype; its spells are much more mana-intensive and broader in application. So where the heck does Mid-range fall on the metagame clock? Glad you asked…
Our example of Mid-range actually falls in between combo and aggro. It has powerful control spells that provide card advantage, playing the ‘catch up’ role in the mid-game quite well. It also has powerful creatures that it uses to finish the game fast, which is an aggro approach. If it doesn’t find a creature right off, it relies on control spells or tries to draw into a creature, which is a non-aggro approach. It looks like combo beats mid-range on the clock…but what about the discard spells, don’t they help win against combo? Of course they do. Mid-range is a deck that can play on a full three different spaces on the metagame clock. The ability to approach the game on more than one space on the clock is what makes the nine decks good.
Breaking down the second clock example, it essentially reads this (starting at the twelve o’clock position with aggro.)
1) The Aggro section of the clock:
Aggro beats control because it has more threats than control has answers. It beats aggro-control for the same reason, but the game may turn in either deck’s favor depending on the quality of the threats that are presented. Aggro decks are more consistent with a lot of threats while aggro-control has more variance. It needs the right mix of threats and answers to beat aggro. Aggro-control beats control because it has more threats to present while having some counter-Magic or other control elements to combat control’s answers.
2) The Control section of the clock:
Control covers a wide swath of space on the clock from eight o’clock to four o’clock. The more permission it uses, the closer it is to four o’clock and the easier it can win against combo decks. The more threats it uses pushes it closer to eight o’clock and making it somewhat harder to beat combo decks. Control is still favored at eight o’clock but not as much as at four o’clock. Control is favored all the way up to Mid-range at the two o’clock space but starts to lose favor the closer it gets to pure aggro (stompy).
3) The Combo section of the clock:
Combo is favored all the way up to aggro-control, depending on the specific control factors involved. Aggro-control with counterspells will be favored against combo decks but the closer aggro-control is to pure aggro, the more favored combo will be. Combo decks beat mid-range and aggro decks quite handily.
This is the metagame clock theory in its basic form. The reason why the nine decks are the only good decks is because they are capable of doing one of two things: taking exceptional advantage of a particular section of the clock really well or playing several spaces on the clock at the same time. A mid-range deck plays at twelve o’clock, eight o’clock, and two o’clock covering most deck types fairly well. This is Mid-range’s strength and what provides it with good odds against a diverse metagame.
I would like to take apart two more examples with prison and sligh. Looking at a prison deck, it plays well at the six to seven o’clock position and the four o’clock position. It has control factors that can deal with combo decks nicely while also having a combo-like synergy that can favor it over mid-range and aggro. It has a hard time with aggro-control and against purer forms of control with a heavy dose of counterMagic. What it gains in order to be good against aggro and combo also provides a loss by being weak to aggro-control and control.
Sligh plays well at both at twelve o’clock and four o’clock. If you said to yourself ‘what the heck, it plays aggro and combo at the same time?’ then you are on the same page as I want you to be. Reviewing the vocabulary insert above for sligh, it encompasses a fast aggro deck with a healthy amount of burn spells. The creature threats that it uses are fast; too fast for purer forms of control decks to handle. This makes it somewhat weak to mid-range decks, especially mid-range decks that utilize life gain of some sort. Don’t forget that it plays well at the combo section as well, chaining burn spells together in a somewhat slow combo that drags their opponent’s life total down to zero. This means that it can beat mid-range just fine. Sligh’s ability to beat both control and mid-range makes it a powerful choice in a given metagame.
Here is a basic sligh list so you can get a clear picture of what I’m describing:
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Not much explanation is needed. The threats are fast with Jackal Pup and Goblin Guide being fantastic turn-one plays resulting in four or more damage. Keldon Marauders and Hellspark Elemental are aggressive two mana plays that are problematic to deal with, one resulting in a potential five damage and the other a potential six damage. The burn spells are cheap, really cheap. The only one that goes over one mana is Magma Jet. I’ve already mentioned why I like Magma Jet in a past article about card quality. It allows you to filter the top two cards, hopefully resulting in two more cheap burn spells to finish off your opponent. The reason for describing a sligh deck today is for the simple reason that it is competitive regardless of a given metagame. It may not win every matchup easily, but most opponents will be intimidated by its raw speed. A smart sideboard allows a sligh deck to deal with its weak matchups such as combo decks. It can steal quite a few games against opponents expecting counterspells or big creatures.
Now let me contradict the above wall of text slightly by saying this: decks don’t beat decks and archetypes don’t beat archetypes. Players beat players. Remember that the nine good decks play different sections of the metagame clock, but that isn’t the end-all, be-all of playing a game of Magic. Each game is different, depending on the skill level of each player and the luck of the draw from a randomized sixty card deck. It is quite possible for combo decks to beat control decks. In fact it happens all the time, especially in formats with a deep card pool like vintage and legacy. The nine decks are constantly being evolved and updated with new cards and new interactions to make them as dangerous as possible. In most metagames, there is usually a top-deck, or maybe multiple top decks. Legacy is so diverse that no less than seven decks are considered top decks at any given moment. When a new card is printed or a new interaction is discovered, it can create what is known as a metagame shift. The new card or interaction gives a particular deck the edge it needs to shore up its weak matchups without compromising its strong matchups.
A good example of this type of metagame shift comes from last week’s Pro Tour in Honolulu where Brian Kibler took first place. Standard seems like a fairly diverse metagame right now, but one card in particular gave Kibler’s green and red mana-ramp deck the edge it needed: Dark Ascension’s new Huntsmaster of the Fells. It provided some much needed card advantage by giving him two threats in a 2/2 Wolf and gaining two life just for playing it. Once it flips, it deals two damage to the opponent and two damage to a creature they control, all the while providing a bigger trampling threat at 4/4. Playing it and flipping it only once provide an incredible amount of card advantage and an incredible threat. You can see coverage of how he won the tournament here: /ExternalLink.aspx?ExternalURL=http%3a%2f%2fwww.wizards.com%2fMagic%2fmagazine%2farticle.aspx%3fx%3dmtg%2fdaily%2feventcoverage%2fptdka12%2ftop8deckKibler Triumphs[/link.]
It may seem like it was just a good creature, and therefore its raw power helped him win the tournament. In a small sense, that’s true. In a larger sense it allowed him to play a strong mid-range strategy that gave him an unbeatable edge against other aggro decks while building lots of mana to combo into Titans beefed from Kessig Wolf Run, which punished anyone thinking of bringing a mid-range deck of their own. If those didn’t work, he just brought the beatdown with Thrun to handle the control decks. I’m getting ahead of myself, but using Green Sun’s Zenith as a toolbox enabler was really strong, allowing him to virtually play more than four Huntsmasters and making the singleton Acidic Slime, Thrun, and Birds of Paradise show up right when he needed them. The metagame has shifted to this being the top deck, of that I have no doubts.
We’re almost done with evaluating the nine good decks of Magic. Next week brings toolbox, an adaptive and fun strategy that can reward you for holding onto those singleton rares you have squirreled away in your binder. Keep digging deeper into your roots and have fun out there!
Author of 'Roots', your weekly dose of fundamental magic.