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My girlfiend has a U/G standard deck (Scars/M12/Innistrad), and she's having issues with being overrun in the early game so that she can take off late game with her deck (once it takes off it's nearly impossible to kill off). She has some mana ramp, including Llanowar Elves and Rampant Growth.

What are some strategies to tie up the early game to get her set up for late game?

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up vote 7 down vote accepted

"Stages" theory

There's a school of thought that says Magic decks basically have 3 "stages" in play:

  • Stage 1: You're starting out the game, and have very little ability to actually do most of the things your deck does. Basically this is the stage where you can do very little on the board other than lay land.
  • Stage 2: You're able to play most of your cards. You have options and can interact with your opponent. If you're both jockeying for incremental advantage back and forth, your decks have both hit stage 2.
  • Stage 3: You're able to play your biggest, nastiest cards (or play them and pay for counterspell mana to keep them on the board, for instance). Reaching this stage means being able to set up a back-breaking finish.

How is this different from just talking about early game / mid game / late game? Because we don't both get to the same stage at the same time. Fast aggro decks basically exploit this by getting to stage 2 ASAP, then beating on your while you're still in stage 1 (or in stage 2, but lagging behind on board position because they've had a few more turns to spill their hand out onto the table).

For a ramp deck or a control deck in this matchup, whatever your "stage 3" is likely to be less important than how quickly you can get out of stage 1. Ramp decks in particular are vulnerable to aggro because they tend to spend their early turns on mana acceleration, which is effectively staying in stage 1 longer in order to see a quicker stage 3.

General anti-aggro strategies in ramp decks

The general approach to take, as you've said, is to "tie up" the early game. Ramp decks usually can't race dedicated aggro (though some other combo decks can), so this calls for a more controlling posture.

General strategies are similar to the anti-aggro part of a control deck: sweepers, counters, and removal, backed up by blockers and tempo cards to bog down the board. The problem is customizing the plan to match your deck, which likely has other non-control elements in it, and may be restricted by colors or the need to routinely tap out on your own turn to advance your own game.

Conventional wisdom goes something like this:

  • Sweepers are (probably) best. If you look at recent(-ish) ramp decks like Wolf Run and Valakut, you'll see that they tend to run sweepers (Slagstorm in red; Day of Judgment in white). These give you the ability to undo several turns of build-up in one fell swoop. Blue/green don't really have the same option, though, aside from the very limited Creeping Corrosion (which might be a good sideboard card against artifact decks). The main downside of this approach is that, since most sweepers are sorceries, it does leave you a bit weak to aggro-control decks.

  • Run value-added blockers that enhance your Plan A. The other thing they do is turn their ramp cards into creatures, which lets you get a nice blocker along with your extra land. Viridian Emissary and Solemn Simulacrum are the go-to choices here. Unlike mana dorks, it doesn't actually set you back to lose these guys in a combat trade. (Note the additional synergy with board wipes!) These go great with a Birthing Pod gameplan, too.

Both of these strategies allow you to still play a proactive game and tap out on your own turn, which is what most ramp decks want to do.

Alternative approaches for blue/green

In the absence of good sweepers and low-cost removal in your colors, I think you ought to rely on the creature solution mentioned above, backed up by tempo cards.

Let's look at counters first. The main problem with counters is that any turn you spend holding open counter mana that you don't use is a pretty big loss of momentum; dedicated control decks work around this by playing almost all of their low-curve stuff at instant speed (so, e.g., if there's nothing good to Mana Leak on a given turn, they'll just spend their mana on a Forbidden Alchemy or Midnight Haunting). Counters do have added value in protecting your big stuff once it hits the field, though, which can help when facing removal-heavy decks. If your have good mana sinks in your deck, then run counters; if you don't, I think you're better off skipping them.

Tempo cards are easier to fit into a ramp deck because you usually play them on your opponent's turn, but, unlike counters, you already know whether you'll have a viable target during your own turn, when you're deciding whether to play your stalling cards or advance your own board position. Vapor Snag has already been mentioned. It's a strong card in the current environment because bounce removes stockpiled +1/+1 counters and exiles tokens. Frost Breath is another great card -- played right, it basically turns off their two biggest attackers for two turns. When you're playing for tempo as the bigger deck, remember that these cards are no better than treading water unless you keep making your land drops; throwing in filtering cards like Ponder can help you to do that.

If a particular deck or card is costing you most of your games, it's also reasonable to sideboard against it. For example, in the current metagame, Naturalize is very effective against Red Deck Wins (hits their Shrine), Tempered Steel decks (hits nearly everything in their deck, including Tempered Steel and Shrine of Loyal Legions), and most weenie decks (hits Swords, Honor of the Pure / Intangible Virtue).

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On second thought, forget Acidic Slime: removal-on-a-stick is nice, but a 5-mana 2/2 isn't really that great against fast decks. –  Alex P Dec 16 '11 at 15:36
    
Acidic Slime works wonderfully well in the Birthing Pod deck, where you can chain up to it pretty quickly and only bring it in if your opponent has enchantments you need to kill. But it's not especially helpful for the OP. –  JSBձոգչ Dec 19 '11 at 1:22
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If she's in blue/green, then she has several options:

On the blue side, lean on counterspells and bounce. 4x Mana Leak will probably go into any blue deck. It's cheap (only 1U), and in the early game it's very unlikely that your opponent will have the extra 3 mana to pay to power through it. You can also run Vapor Snag to return cards to your opponent's hand (and do 1 damage!) for only U. A few of these can slow down your opponent's tempo enough to get you to your finishers.

You're also looking at cheap early creatures that can choke up the board enough to hold off your opponent's attacks for a few more turns, and hopefully provide a decent side-benefit. Here's a list of all Standard-legal green, blue, and colorless creatures with a CMC of 2 or less. Especially promising creatures for early defense include:

Oculus (chump early and get a free card)

Phantasmal Bear (a 2/2 for U)

Phantasmal Image (copy anything else on the board)

Ambush Viper (flash, deathtouch)

Viridian Emissary (trades up nicely + free land when it dies)

Memnite (free 1/1)

Necropede (great potential for a 2-for-1)

(Note that I've left several great cards like Snapcaster Mage out of this list; not because they're not good, but because their primary role is something other than early defense/control.)

The exact cards you play depend on your overall strategy, but you can certainly find something useful in this list.

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+1 Viridian Emissary sounds perfect for this deck. –  shujaa Dec 14 '11 at 18:02
    
Viridian Emissary is definitely my favourite of the list there, especially since it sounds like she's playing a ramp deck. –  adamjford Dec 15 '11 at 18:11
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