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In MTG, there are several ways to win that don't involve damaging your opponent. The most prominent is milling (running an opponent out of cards to draw), but there are also special cards like Felidar Sovereign, Laboratory Maniac, Battle of Wits, and Barren Glory that introduce unique victory conditions.

I understand why these decks can be fun: it's a novel experience to build and play a deck with an entirely different goal, not to mention "Johnny"-fun to figure out how to achieve some of those goals. What I'd like to know is something else entirely: when is prioritizing an alternate win condition actually strategically advantageous?

Specifically, it seems like, short of all-in-one-go combo, pursuing these goals involves actively sacrificing tempo and card advantage. Take mill cards like Glimpse the Unthinkable, for example: the card mills a significant chunk of an opponent's deck, but it doesn't actually influence the board state in any way; in the vast majority of cases, making your opponent put ten cards from her library into her graveyard has no affect on her board presence or ability to make subsequent plays (in some instances, it actually helps her, too).

  • What factors affect the viability of a deck built around an alternate win condition?

  • Is it ever feasible (like, you-could-take-this-deck-to-a-tournament feasible) to build around an alternate wincon in something that's not just a pure combo deck?

  • How can one offset or avoid the natural card and tempo disadvantage baked into most of these cards?

  • When is it practical to include an alternate wincon as "Plan B" (or C, or D, &c.) in a deck with a damage-based Plan A?

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If you can get the necessary cards, then mill is generally a little better in Limited, since the decks are smaller and the tempo is slower. But in Constructed formats, I don't know that mill strategies are really playable. –  JSBձոգչ Dec 7 '11 at 20:34
    
@JSBᾶngs I see what you mean from a card-availability perspective: most formats have enough mill cards that you can draft a mill deck as a "garbage man" (take the cards nobody wants) strategy. –  Alex P Dec 7 '11 at 20:53
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A key piece here is that cards like this provide just what you stated - an alternate win condition. If you make a deck that relies solely on them, you're just making your life harder, but making one that could hit either could be interesting. Totally separately, lots of these cards see play in multiplayer. –  Ian Pugsley Dec 7 '11 at 21:04
    
@IanPugsley I'd love to see an answer on that topic. I added a question to speak to it more directly. –  Alex P Dec 7 '11 at 21:11
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@IanPugsley There was a popular Vampire-deck that was playing aggro but as a part of that deck they included Dark Depths for being used with Vampire Hexmage. Though I think it eventually evolved into a pure combo deck excluding the aggro theme for more tutors and stuff because it was better. –  AndSoYouCode Dec 8 '11 at 12:40

4 Answers 4

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+50

I think there's a very simple answer to this question, which perhaps hasn't been concisely stated yet:

Most people's decks are tuned to beat decks trying to win in the "normal" way. If your deck is trying to win in an unusual way, many decks will not have any good answer to that.

Suppose you're playing a Battle of Wits deck. A lot of decks won't be packing sufficient enchantment removal to reliably take out Battle of Wits when you cast it - because, in general, enchantment spot removal is not a high priority for winning games of magic. Which means that, assuming you can survive long enough to find and cast your key card, you win easily.

Or suppose you're playing a deck which has an effective way to gain infinite life. A lot of decks will be trying to win via the standard route, of dealing 20 damage very fast. If you can simply gain life faster than they can deal with it, their finely-tuned damage dealing deck is almost certain to have no plan B for dealing with your unusual game plan.

Contrary to other answers to this question, I don't think "the element of surprise" is a key feature to the effectiveness of "alternate win condition" decks... at least not in the sense of your opponent going "huh? What's this deck trying to do, I don't understand...?!". I think it's a metagame question, pure and simple. No deck, even after sideboarding, can have effective answers to every other possible deck in the game of Magic. As such, sensible deckbuilders will build their deck planning to win against the decks they are most expecting to face. Your opponent may have worked out exactly what your alternate win condition is inside of the first 5 minutes of your match; but that doesn't mean they will have a good way of dealing with it in either their maindeck or their sideboard. And you may be able to steal quite a few wins against supposedly "better" decks that way.

Never underestimate the power of the metagame. See for instance the recent World Championships, where Team Channel Fireball brought a Tempered Steel deck that was generally considered to be unplayable because "it rolls over and dies as soon as anyone plays Slagstorm" [or something like that, I'm relying on my memory here]. But as it happened none of the "good" decks at that tournament were packing Slagstorm, and so TCF put 4 players into the top 8 with an identical "B-list" deck. I don't think you can say the principle of playing to win not just the game but the metagame isn't sound!

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Great answer! About "Fireball Steel": It's a bit trickier than that, IIRC. Tempered Steel was considered weak to Ancient Grudge and Slagstorm. TCF played a flavor that avoided going "all in" as fast as possible in favor of playing cards like Origin Spellbomb to get around Slagstorm. –  Alex P Dec 25 '11 at 16:36
    
This answer is great! I agree that not having ways to deal with the deck is the most important benefit. Also having a combo as plan B in you aggro deck gives you a chance to beat that "infinite life deck"/control deck with Moat. Having more than one way to win often gives you more flexibility at the cost of consistency and/or efficiency. The element of surprise is a nice addition too if you have it. –  AndSoYouCode Jan 19 '12 at 12:06

If you play a common deck or a deck with a common theme it's easier for your opponent make correct decisions.

Say I've played against your "Goblin deck" a lot of times. I know what are your most dangerous threats, what creatures I want to kill, what spells I want to counter, how long I should wait before I play my sweeper, what your kill range is, and so on.

So say you bring a deck I've never seen before, and play a bunch of cards I've never played against, I have a harder time to make optimal decisions against you. Does he win by milling or damage? Is he searching for a combo? What's his kill range? Do I want to counter this spell or should I save the counter for his next one? Can I risk playing a creature here?

To summarize, playing an unknown deck/playstyle/wincon will give you an information advantage (unless your opponent does too) to base you decisions on.

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That's sounds about right. Example: Say you go against a combo deck, and you have Force of Will in hand, so you have exactly 1 chance to shoot down the combo. Now the question is, for example: Is the combo deck going for a Storm count to cast the finisher multiple times, or is it an infinite mana combo followed by a single finisher spell, like a "draw X cards" spell? In the latter case, it would be enough to wait for the finisher spell to counter it, while in the former case, you have to act a lot earlier, like disrupting a card searcher or mana accelerator. –  Hackworth Dec 8 '11 at 14:01
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Great point. The problem, of course, is that this trick is only going to work once in any given play-group. –  JSBձոգչ Dec 8 '11 at 15:48
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Excellent point. I feel like it's easier to hide a damage-based combo than a specialty wincon, though. For instance, whenever I've met a mill deck in draft, it was pretty obvious as soon as they cast Curse of the Bloody Tome targeting me (and it comes as a relief, usually, because it's almost like my opponent just gave me a free Time Walk). –  Alex P Dec 8 '11 at 16:31
    
@AlexP Yeah, most of the time people do feel that way. There's usually a reason why some decks are well known and other aren't ;). The advantage in knowledge about the decks doesn't help you much if you have a deck that's a lot worse. But if you manage to come up with a new awesome deck no one has seen before, you're golden :) –  AndSoYouCode Dec 8 '11 at 22:02
    
Exactly. I won heavily with a tempo-advantage-based artifact deck based around Sage of Lat-Nam... because I did it back in Legends when nobody had heard the word "tempo" yet. Never lost a match at the time; nobody was ready to counter the concept. (It would look pretty slow these days.) –  Tynam Dec 20 '11 at 13:49

I'd tie the alt-wincon into other cards. Do I have a card that mean I get bonuses to creatures from putting large chunks into the graveyard? I'd like to mill for that. Do I have a control card that lets me put the players land on top of the deck, so I can then bin them and set him behind whilst milling?

For instance, card with stats which are some function of cards in graveyards become more dangerous the more milling you do. Cards like: Mortivore and Lhurgoyf

Some creatures gain bonuses or abilities when they attack: Guiltfeeder and Necrotic ooze, or are cheaper to play Avatar of Woe

Some other card will give you extra life, so you can keep milling: Invigorating Falls or Spoils of Evil (whichis more limited, but does give extra mana)

Other times you can pull a card that lets you win earlier than they expect (which will surprise a few people with mammoth decks...), with Mortal Combat

Essentially, tie the player up with other effects and make milling a secondary bonus, that adds to your current plans. Otherwise it's just a one trick pony.

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The problem with most alternate win conditions is that they are easy to remove. "I win" cards are usually answered by Counters, Terror, Disenchants, or a variety of other removal cards. Protecting the alternate win condition can often times be more important than playing it.

I mostly play casual games with a pretty good group of people, some of whom play in tournaments. I have 4 decks that usually depend on alternate win conditions and the main benefit I have seen is that people are less likely to have answers to alt win condition decks (if that win condition doesn't rely on just 1 card). It's fun to be playing toward a different goal than your opponents.

For example one of the decks I play against on occasion has a few indestructible creatures, worship and an infinite life gain combo, and an infinite shuffle graveyard into library ability. This deck has an answer to most things except alt win conditions. If you don't have many decks and more than 1 depends on an alt win condition then the people around you will learn what to expect and can prepare themselves but if you have many decks made to pick from, or play it very rarely, it can throw people off balance.

Andsoyoucode has basically said the above, I thought I could paint it in a different perspective. I glossed over some points because he covered them so well though.

Also, on one or two occasions I have thrown an alternate win condition into a deck with little or no ability to fulfill it. While this is a gambit, it has often thrown an opponent off balance in worrying about a card on the table that is an instant win condition that they completely miss what I am actually killing them with.

I have found that there are 3 basic types of good Magic Players, ones that build great decks, ones that play decks very well and ones that are just plain lucky. Alternate win conditions can fall outside of what a deck can handle, or force a player to adapt to something that they hadn't planned on.

As far as tournament play goes I don't think I would every really take an alternate win condition to a serious tournament. I know a couple of years back though a fog deck that literally forced the other player to run out of cards first through stalemate did quite well in the tournament circuit. All that being said I have played my poison (sort of an alternate win condition) deck in a few 1.5 tournaments (all before infect existed) and for a deck that had zero rares and cost less than $25 buying the cards online as singles, it did rather well, performing most of its kills 4th turn, and stalling until then.

The problem with tournament decks is you only get the "surprise" effect on the first game and the second game they can sideboard in what they need that will probably be better able to handle your win condition.

*I am at work now and will add links and resources when I get home.

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