I've read a bunch of online discussions over the years where a player will ask for advice about deck building or how to handle a problematic matchup for them. One suggestion that often comes up is that you need to get under your opponent, or that you need to go over the top of them. This concept is well understood by veteran players, but telling a less experienced player they need to get under or go over their opponent isn't really that helpful. Why? They probably don't understand why they should, how to do so, or how to apply the concept to their gameplay, deck building, and deck assessment.
Today I'd like to take a deep dive on this subject. Coming to understand these concepts was game-changing for me. For players looking to take their play to the next level, I believe that the following information could be very helpful in gaining a deeper understanding of the game within the game.
To begin, let's start with the WHY.
Why You Need to Go Over or Under Your Opponent
The first step to understanding why you need to go over or under other decks is understanding the concepts of inevitability, role assignment, and average deck speed.
To quote MTG Hall of Famer Reid Duke, "If one player is virtually guaranteed to win the game if it goes long enough, we say that that player has inevitability." For more on inevitability, see Reid Duke's Level One article on the subject:
Role assignment is the art of determining which player should be the aggressor at any given time within a matchup. It is based on who has inevitability and who will be able to win first. For more on this, see Who's the Beatdown by Mike Flores.
Deck speed is the average turn on which a deck wins the game vs a goldfish (an opponent who does not interact with you in any way). If you were to goldfish enough games with a particular deck you could say with a degree of confidence that on average the deck will win on turn X.
Okay, so we understand inevitability, role assignment, and deck speed—we're off to a great start! The next step is to take a closer look at how these concepts interact in order to gain a deeper understanding of the game. If you read between the lines, the following inferences can be made:
1. If you are playing against a deck that is faster than you, you'll likely lose unless you have a way to slow them down.
Therefore, if you don't want to lose you must:
Be the fastest deck (so there aren't decks faster than you to lose to)
Be capable of slowing down decks faster than you.
2. If you are playing against a deck with more inevitability than you, you are likely to lose if the game goes too long.
Therefore, if you don't want to lose, you must:
Have more inevitability than any other deck
Be faster than decks with more inevitability than you.
3. If your plan involves slowing down decks that are faster, you will need to focus on actions that slow your opponent down rather than trying to kill them. A natural consequence of this is an increase in the length of the game, and the person with more inevitability is favored to win a longer game.
So, decks that want to win the long game must have more inevitability than faster decks.
4. If you are playing against a deck that has more inevitability than you, they must attempt to slow you down. Because they have more inevitability, you will likely lose if they successfully maintain control and make the game go long.
Therefore, if you don't want to lose you, must be resilient to the attempts of these decks to slow you down.
-You must be faster than decks that have more inevitability than you or you must have the most inevitability.
-You must have more inevitability than decks that are faster than you or you need to be the fastest deck.
-You must be able to overcome the attempts of decks with more inevitability than you to slow you down.
-You must be able to slow down decks that are faster than you.
The above conclusions have some strategic implications:
It is oftentimes easiest to be solidly at one end of the spectrum. The fastest decks only need to focus on being fast and resilient to their opponent's attempts to slow them. The decks with the most inevitability only need to focus on slowing the game and ensuring inevitability. Being stuck in the middle is difficult because you often find yourself in a balancing act. This can leave your deck without a clear identity or game plan.
Midrange decks are stuck trying to slow down and ensure inevitability against faster decks while simultaneously trying to be fast and resilient versus decks with more inevitability. The midrange deck switches roles depending on the matchup, but it can be very difficult for one deck to fully dedicate itself to playing both a controlling and aggressive role.
This is why midrange is sometimes criticized as an invalid archetype. This is also why it's not that uncommon to see formats where decks in the middle struggle and the format ends up being dominated by decks at either end of the spectrum.
That said, midrange can thrive under the right conditions. This can happen when generating card advantage is the most "over the top" thing you can be doing in a format. When the format lacks a big combo-based finish like copying a bunch of turns or resolving Emergent Ultimatum, midrange has a chance at going toe to toe with other late-game decks in terms of grinding card advantage.
A good example of this is when Temur Clover decks were successful in Standard.
Another way that midrange can have a fighting chance is in a format where the archetype has access to cards that are excellent at playing both offensive and defensive roles simultaneously. Consider the many cards in Modern Jund that offer versatility, speed, and defensive capabilities.
Alright, with that out of the way, let's get to the HOW.
How to Get Under Your Opponent
You have two goals:
1. Be fast.
2. Be resilient to your opponent's attempts to slow you down and attain inevitability.
How to Be Fast - Deck Building and Sideboarding
-Have a low enough curve and early threats. You can't wait too long to start pressuring them.
-Choose creatures with higher power relative to their mana value. For example, consider choosing Usher of the Fallen for your deck over Chaplain of Alms, even though the chaplain is a source of card advantage. A 1/X creature is often not enough pressure for decks that want to go fast.
-Have a high enough density of threats. A hand full of removal or other non-threatening cards doesn't pressure your opponent or end the game quickly enough.
-Play creatures with haste.
-Play cards that synergize with other cards to be greater than the sum of their parts. For example, Lord of Atlantis effectively has haste if you have merfolk to swing with the turn you play it. The lord itself adds 2 power to the board, but it also pumps up your other merfolk. If you have 3 creatures on board before you cast your lord, you have effectively added 5 power to the board for 2 mana! But be careful about using individually weak synergy cards (more on this later).
How to Be Fast - Game Play
-Keep hands with early aggression and enough threat density.
-Sequence your plays to maximize potential damage output. Consider playing your 2/1 Usher of the Fallen on turn one over your 1/2 Hopeful Initiate, for example.
How to Be Resilient - Deck Building and Sideboarding
-Choose individually powerful threats. If your opponent can answer all of your threats, you lose. Your fighting chance is to eventually stick something they don't have an answer for. When that happens, whatever threat you were able to stick better be powerful on its own. A threat that provides cascading value turn after turn and can run away with the game on its own is great for this. Think of cards like Luminarch Aspirant or Esika's Chariot. Relying too much on synergy against control can be dangerous. If half your deck is weak enablers and the other half is payoff cards, you have effectively doubled the efficacy of your opponent's removal.
-Find a way past their blockers:
Run removal for their blockers
Use evasion such as flying, trample, menace, unblockable, creatures which deal damage even if blocked, etc. Using evasion is considered a form of reach.
-If you can't profitably attack or even get a creature to stick on board then kill them with direct damage or life loss effects. This is another form of reach.
-You can try to disrupt your opponent back by taking away or delaying the things they need to slow you down. You can also attack the tools they use to attain inevitability. Take something like their board wipe or their Ultimatum. For example:
Tax effects like Elite Spellbinder or Thalia
Targeted discard like Duress
Anti-control hate cards like Shaper's Sanctuary
Hate cards to disrupt their inevitability can buy you more time. Such as Roiling Vortex vs Emergent Ultimatum
-Choose threats that line up well against the tools your opponent will try to use to slow you down. Some keywords or strategies include:
Indestructible: good vs damage or destruction based spot removal and board sweepers, but is weak to exile and -X/-X effects
Going wide: good vs spot removal but can be bad against board sweepers
Use creatures with big butts vs damage-based removal
Flicker effects: good vs targeted removal, bad vs board sweepers
Delayed flicker effects such as Fleeting Spirit: good against everything but blockers
Use uncounterable threats vs counterspells
Hexproof: good vs spot removal but weak to board sweepers
Use threats that also generate card advantage so you don't run out of gas
Use threats with an ability that triggers when the threat is cast, enters the battlefield, or dies so you get guaranteed value even if they remove your threat. ETB and cast triggers are particularly good against bounce effects.
Use threats that dodge creature removal altogether such as artifacts, enchantments, lands, and planeswalkers
Use recursive threats to run your opponent out of removal such as Skyclave Shade
Man-lands: great against sorcery speed removal and board sweepers, soft to instant speed removal
Threats with ward can make you harder to interact with
How to Be Resilient - Game Play
-Sequence your plays to line up well against your opponent's efforts to slow you down. I know I just told you earlier to play your Usher of the Fallen before your Grim Initiate, and in a vacuum, it's true that you should favor the more aggressive play. But let's suppose your opponent is on the play, leads with a mountain, and then manually passes priority (Arena doesn't skip priority for them). I'm going to immediately suspect they might have a Spikefield Hazard in hand. In this case, I'm going to play the Grim Initiate over Usher of the Fallen. It's better to have a creature on the field with 1 power (which also has the potential to gain counters with mentor) than a dead 2/1 even though it seems slower out of the gate. This depends heavily on your knowledge of the meta and whether or not you can predict your opponent's best plays on any given turn.
-Consider playing your less powerful cards first if you suspect a counterspell
-You do need to emphasize speed, but sometimes you need to slow down a bit too! Rushing too much can have its downsides if it lines up poorly with what your opponent is doing to try to slow you down. Don't be reckless and play into their interaction or make bad attacks needlessly. That said, you do have to recognize when you can't afford to play it safe. Sometimes you can play around their board sweeper/counterspell/removal etc and sometimes you can't afford to.
-Know your outs, such as drawing an evasive creature vs blockers or a burn spell
-Prioritize speed over card advantage. If you can also get card advantage then you absolutely should, but speed is your number one priority. Keep in mind that generating card advantage is good if it also acts as gas to keep pressuring your opponent. Remember that you're trying to kill them quickly, not grind them out on card advantage.
How to Go Over Your Opponent
Your goals are:
1. Slow down your opponent
2. Attain inevitability
Figuring out which one of these you should be focusing on is extremely important. If your opponent is much faster than you and is capable of killing you quickly, slowing them down and staying alive is your number one priority.
If you are playing against a slower opponent who isn't pressuring you much, then your efforts should be far more focused on strengthening your late game and attaining inevitability.
How to Attain Inevitability - Deck Building and Sideboarding
There are different approaches you can take to ensure a strong late game and have more inevitability than your opponent. Common ways to ensure inevitability are:
-Generate guaranteed card advantage. This can take different forms:
Two for ones. Cards like Blood on the Snow, for example, let you sweep the board AND bring back a threat
Repeating value such as a planeswalker
Card selection or filtering as a form of virtual card advantage
Higher card quality than your opponent as a form of virtual card advantage
-Have enough ways to generate mana. If you are playing powerful late-game effects and trying to generate card advantage, you will need lots of mana to work with. Make sure your deck has enough lands and/or other mana sources. Hitting your land drops and developing your mana is an important part of being able to cast your spells, get ahead of your opponent, and ensure a strong late game.
-Disrupt your opponent's late game. Your opponent won't have more inevitability than you if you can successfully disrupt their attempts to generate card advantage, develop their mana, or execute their win condition.
-Prevent them from disrupting your inevitability. Protect your sources of card advantage or win conditions with counterspells or discard etc.
Generating card advantage, developing your mana, and disrupting your opponent are all great ways to get ahead, but they don't actually end the game on their own. You need to make a decision as to what your late-game plan is:
A) Have a way to turn the corner and kill your opponent
B) Be capable of completely locking your opponent out of the game with a combination of permission, disruption, and card advantage
It can be difficult to achieve option B without access to the right tools, but such a deck is possible. When Teferi, Hero of Dominaria was Standard-legal there was a successful control deck whose only win condition was to completely lock the opponent out of the game until they decked themselves.
If you aren't capable of locking your opponent out utterly and completely, then you need a way to turn the corner and win. Some methods include:
Strong over the top finishers like Emergent Ultimatum
Powerful threats like Goldspan Dragon or Hullbreaker Horror
A burn/drain finish. Banefire to the face for 20 for example
Alternative win conditions like Strixhaven Stadium, poison counters, Thassa's Oracle, etc.
A Combo finish that wins the game on the spot, or is virtually guaranteed to do so
How to Attain Inevitability - Game Play
-If you've determined that you have enough time to focus on improving your late game rather than just staying alive, then make each decision with the goal of maximizing card advantage, stifling your opponent's late game, and strengthening your late game.
-If your opponent only has a small amount of pressure on you and you have a healthy life total, it's often correct to take a little bit of damage and rely on your board sweeper or big late-game effect to catch you up.
-Oftentimes in matchups with other slow decks, patience is key. Wait for the right time to do things. In control mirrors, they often say that the person who tries to "go off" and finish the game first is often the one who loses.
How to Slow Your Opponent Down - Deck Building and Sideboarding
-Make sure to choose answers that are extremely versatile, or that line up well with common threats in the meta. This would be the inverse of the effects listed under "How to Be Resilient - Deck Building and Sideboarding."
Counterspells - hits almost anything, but can't deal with a resolved threat, and is sometimes too slow
Exile-based removal - premium removal. Gets around indestructible and prevents recursion
-X/-X removal - also gets around indestructible
Destruction based removal - good against creatures of any size
Burn based removal - less reliable against big creatures, but is sometimes cheaper to cast
Board sweepers - get around hexproof and hit multiple threats
Targeted discard like Thoughtseize - gives information and can hit anything, but is a life and tempo loss when played
-Block your opponent's creatures with your own creatures. This can be anything from an Eyetwitch or pest token to a Lovestruck Beast or Elder Gargaroth.
-Use prison type effects like Ensnaring Bridge or Ghostly Prison
How to Slow Your Opponent Down - Game Play
-If you've determined that your efforts should be focused on slowing your opponent down and staying alive, then that should be your number one priority. Do not get greedy and attempt to maximize card advantage. Focus on slowing your opponent and allow inevitability to come naturally. Your deck should have more sources of card advantage, high card quality, and a stronger late game than your opponent. So, early on, don't worry about generating card advantage - it will come naturally. You will top deck much better than your opponent more often than not.
-Keep hands with early interaction and a low enough curve. In matchups with slower decks, you have enough time to draw into what you need, but that doesn't work against aggro as you will just get run over.
-Make sure you use the right disruption against the right threat. You'll be sad if you cast your Infernal Grasp on your opponent's 2/2 creature over your Play With Fire if they play a 2/3 creature the following turn.
-Know when to save your removal or interaction for something more important.
-Know your outs like drawing a board wipe or your big finisher card etc.
How to Use These Concepts for Deck Assessment
When assessing a deck you've brewed or deciding if you should blow your precious wildcards on the cool-looking decklist you found online, take a step back and ask yourself some questions.
For fast decks:
How consistently fast is this deck?
Are there faster decks that can get under it?
Does the deck have a reasonable strategy to deal with the opponent's attempts to slow it down?
How resilient is the deck? Is it a glass cannon?
Does the deck have any reach/evasion?
How do the deck's threats match up with the commonly played removal in the meta?
For slow decks:
How strong is this deck's late game? How much inevitability does it have?
Can the deck fully lock the opponent out of the game or does it have a way to turn the corner and finish the game?
How much card advantage does the deck generate?
Are there decks that go over the top of it with a better late game?
How good is this deck at controlling the game?
Does this deck have a reasonable strategy to slow down other decks
How does the deck's removal/disruption line up with the commonly played threats in the meta?
For midrange decks:
How good is this deck at playing a fast role?
How good is this deck at playing a controlling role?
Does this deck generate guaranteed value/card advantage?
Can the deck go toe to toe with other midrange and late-game-oriented decks in terms of grinding card advantage?
If you fail to meet any of the above criteria, you must either:
Tune the deck to address the issues
Accept that the deck(s) which causes your deck to fail the criteria will be a bad matchup
Scrap the deck
What's your most effective strategy for tuning your decks? Any tips to share for getting under or going over your opponents? Let me know what you think of the article in the comments below!