Because it Doesn’t Win: A Response to Ross Meriam

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There are many frustrating things in Magic: the Gathering. The game is built around managing the scarce resources of mana and cards to produce wins, and that's very hard. Which is frankly part of the appeal. The thousands of choices and permutations of those choices from deck construction to individual game play keeps Magic fresh and alive.

That said, some challenges are more vexing than others. Especially when that challenge is limited to you and something (or some deck) that you particularly care about. Specifically, it can prove beyond frustrating to have success with a deck while everyone else thinks it's trash. I've been there, and therefore understand where the subject of today's article is coming from.

Last week, Ross Meriam asked why his current Modern deck (4-Color Indomitable Creativity) doesn't see more play in Modern. I realize that the question was mostly rhetorical, and a writer's contrivance introduction to his own article on the deck, but we'll treat it like a serious question. Because it is a good question with a surprising answer.

The Deck's Reality

Ross makes a strong argument for his deck in the article, which I can summarize as "4-Color Creativity is as close to Splinter Twin as it gets in Modern" and is therefore underplayed compared to 4-Color Omnath. As the decks share the same core, Ross believes it would be better to play the combo version. And yet, despite Ross's success, the deck is not only underplayed relative to Omnath versions but barely a player in the format.

The evidence is unequivocal: 4-Color Creativity is not a good deck in Modern. It hasn't made Tier 3 in my metagame updates since November, and it just squeaked in then. Creativity was mid-Tier 3 overall in 2021. And spoiler alert, nothing will change for the next update. This could be excused if Creativity did well on average power, but it doesn't, typically being at or slightly below baseline. These are not characteristics of an underrated deck.

It would therefore be simple to simply dismiss Ross's assertion as hopeful enthusiasm. He's having success, but since nobody else is, he's clearly an outlier. Follow the wisdom of the crowd: the deck is bad.

Not So Fast

Anyone who knows anything about crowds knows that they're as likely to be wrong as they are right, particularly as the crowd size increases. Humans are prone to groupthink and can be led astray by loud but wrong opinions. Cognitive biases and ignorance also play a factor.

We've seen this repeatedly in Magic before. Why else are there so many articles out there about underrated cards and even decks? For all formats? Famously, a lot of teams looked at Colorless Eldrazi prior to PT Oath of the Gatewatch but didn't run the deck either because they built it wrong or didn't understand it. Those that did prospered mightily. Therefore, a claim that contradicts the data and collective wisdom, such as Ross's, should be fairly evaluated. The collective wisdom can be wrong and an individual right, after all.

A Common Refrain

Which hasn't really happened here. Ross Meriam isn't wrong: 4-Color Creativity is a powerful deck. However, it has a hard time translating that power into actual wins. From my own experience, the deck is putting up numbers consistent with its actual place in Modern. This is a case where the enthusiast is doing better than the typical player. However, that's not what drew me to this topic nor why I'm writing this article. I have heard the exact same claim made about both Legacy Sneak and Show and Vintage Oath of Druids many times before.

Uncannily, the players arguing this point to me have defended and justified their opinions the exact same way that Ross defended and justified Creativity: you do a thing, get a superpowered monster, and win the game. Until that point, just play the control deck and wait for the right window to strike. It's the most powerful combo-control thing to do; why won't anyone else play the deck?!

The Combo That Isn't

Short answer: It's the wrong sales pitch. The problem for all these decks and their proponents is that none of them are actually combo-control decks because none of them are combo decks. They superficially resemble combo decks in that they win by combining a few cards together to produce their win condition. However, said win condition isn't actually lights out! Which is why players end up shying away from these decks.

I'm going to quote Ross directly on this:

I’d rather stall the game out until Indomitable Creativity ends the game on the spot.

Why Aren’t You Playing Four-Color Indomitable Creativity In Modern? Ross Meriam,

Every. Time. Someone has tried to sell me (or in Oath's case, someone near me) on these decks, that line has been used. And it isn't true. Yes, there's a high likelihood that the Emrakul, the Aeons Torn or Disciple of Griselbrand will win the game in short order. Assuming they attack successfully and/or the opponent concedes in the face of the monstrous threat. But the fact remains that the opponent has at least one draw step to find an answer after you "successfully combo off" to get back in the game. The threats don't have haste (except via Sneak Attack). That's not ending the game on the spot, that's setting up for a win next turn.

Forgotten Lineage

Compare this to a successful combo from Twin: Here are infinite Deceiver Exarchs. If you don't have the right answer right now, you're dead. No more draw steps, no extra untap step, no further questions. Just dead. The shell of Creativity may resemble Twin in some ways with the interaction and planeswalkers, but it doesn't compare to Twin's game-ending potential.

Which is the biggest misconception about Creativity, Oath, and Sneak. They're not actually combo decks. They're Aeronaut Tinkerer decks in the old-school sense. While mostly replaced by ramp strategies today, Tinker was all about cheating out a big threat and winning before it was possible to answer it. Which is very effective, as evidenced by Tinker's shining moment at the 2000 World Championship.

However, as Mike Flores once noted in a now lost article "Finding the Tinker Deck" (seemingly remembered only by me, citations, and other references to it), Tinker itself is utterly busted, and consequently Wizards has really toned down the power level of Tinker-like spells. That was early 2000's powering down. And when Tinker isn't utterly busted, it's pretty underwhelming. The support spells do nothing on their own, and if the gameplan doesn't develop exactly as written, the deck does nothing. Players hate decks that do nothing.

The Big Flaw

Which is the reason that all three decks are less popular than their proponents would like. When things come together, there's a high likelihood of victory, but only if the opponent can't answer the threat in the (admittedly short) window they're provided. When things don't come together, all these decks can stall heroically, but they can't actually halt the backwards slide. At which point they have to hope that their big threat is still good when they finally cheat it out. Emrakul cheated in on turn 3 is probably good enough. Emrakul cheated in on turn 10 at 4 life? Probably not.

To make matters worse, answers have gotten better and more diverse over the years. Wizards didn't print removal spells capable of removing big creatures efficiently after Deathleaper, Terror Weapon and Swords to Plowshares were deemed too good. Therefore, decks from that era rarely played spot removal, focusing on counters or mass removal.

It wasn't until very recently that Wizards changed its mind. Standard suffered for years thanks to poor removal and exception threats, and Wizards has been forced to print better answers. Modern has Path to Exile, City of Solitude, Drown in the Loch (conditionally), and planeswalkers to remove big creatures cheaply. Tossing out an enormous threat and hoping for the best isn't as safe as it used to be.

And the Answer to the Question...

The Tinker family of strategies is not bad. If it was, Tron and Amulet Titan would have fallen by the wayside years ago. Cheating out big threats is an ageless and solid strategy. However, both the mentioned decks are ramp, cousins of Tinker's but not true derivatives. Each packs a lot of different payoffs which can be cast at various points on the mana curve around its support spells to ensure that the fail state isn't too much of a fail state.

Creativity, like Oath and Sneak before it, is a direct descendent of the original Tinker decks. They want to use a spell to cheat in a big threat without casting it at all. Their only option is to cheat in said threat; it can't be cast in a normal game. If they fail to cheat out their threat, they don't have many options left to actually win the game. The fallback plan is to be a control deck without the density of answers that makes a control deck good. They're decks of compromises.

Which is why true Tinker decks are far less popular and generally perform worse than their ramp cousins. Their harder fail state turns players off and generates a lot of feel-bad moments. Magic players don't like to lose (competitive games attract competitive people), and particularly hate losing to their own deck's failings. Having a less-than-optimal game is one thing; when a deck does a whole lot of things but not the thing that wins the game, it feels much worse. Such is the reality of Creativity, which will just lose if it doesn't draw its namesake card before it runs out of answers. And it doesn't run that many answers.

Truthful Advertising

The moral of this story is that if you're going to bill a deck as a combo that Wins the Game Now, make sure it actually wins the game outright. As all the Sneak players I've beaten with Karakas over the years will attest, leaving the possibility open for the opponent to answer the Tinkered threat is a fatal mistake. It's why Sneak players have adopted Omniscience. Not only does it dodge common Show and Tell hate, it also allows for actual combo kills via chaining instants and tutors. Like an actual combo deck, and not like a ramp deck.

Specific Critiques

I also have few specific problems with Creativity beside the general flaw with the strategy. Hard Evidence is the best anti-aggro card in the deck, as Ross notes. I'd argue that it's also the best token maker because it provides two tokens, one of which isn't a creature and is therefore resilient to common removal fizzling Creativity. Why don't Creativity players play a full set? I've beaten Creativity plenty of times by just answering the tokens. (Engineered Explosives on zero is quite a thing.) And sometimes because Archon of Emeria nerfs Dwarven Mine.

Another is that Serra's Emissary is great against linear decks and terrible against anything fair. The former is to be expected and Ross acknowledges that reality. The problem is that Modern is primarily fair now and the fair decks have multiple card types capable of answering Emissary. Being locked out of one type was frustrating at times, but I've never actually been hard locked or lost to Emissary. My experience paints it as very underwhelming.

And finally, drawing the Creativity payoffs is terrible. There's no way to prevent that, and precious few ways to correct it. If Creativity can stick Emrakul or Emissary, they're probably not losing that game. However, once drawn, there are four total ways to get Emrakul back into the deck, and only two for Emissary. That's disastrous. Worse, there's no cantrips to help find Creativity or to avoid drawing payoffs. Remember what I said about compromises? There isn't room for everything in the deck as it stands, so they've made do by hoping to run well. And it doesn't enough to keep players playing and winning with the deck.

Reasonable Expectations

To be perfectly clear, I think that Creativity is a fine deck. However, it has flaws both intrinsic to its design and the strategy it derives from. This is not the right Modern for Creativity to shine and I don't think the deck is all the way there yet. I think that Creativity needs more time in the tank before it can credibly be called underrated.

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