In 1999 I qualified for Pro Tour New York via the last PTQ of the season, in faraway Detroit, Michigan; it was roughly infinity rounds. The PTQ win itself was a series of improbable dominoes fueled at least in part by the fact that my friend Jamie Wakefield had qualified with Secret Force (his signature Mono-Green Verdant Force deck) the week before.
No damn way I am letting Jamie Q with that pile and not Q myself.
And—armed with a deck designed by future Lead Developer Brian Schneider (then of Team CMU)—I didn’t.
For the Pro Tour itself I switched away from what was at that point my typical operating procedure of “not being very well prepared.” I played between 40 and 50 hours of Magic—Pure Urza’s Block—every week from the moment I qualified and was ultimately quite happy with my deck.
The printing of Rancor meant that the so-called Deck Zero was StOmPy. Wild Dogs, Rancor, Might of Oaks… Some pretty good cards that found their way into bigger formats… All available in Block. Now it turns out that StOmPy was not the best strategy for this Pro Tour, but that doesn’t change the fact that it was the perceived best Deck Zero before the fact.
As I said, I practiced for between 40 and 50 hours per week for over a month.
Over that entire term, with what ended up my Weapon of Choice, I never lost a game to StOmPy.
Even today, twelve years later, it seems so improbable to the point of exaggeration. Not a game to mana screw, not a game to a lucky blowout draw by my opponent, not a game at all. Not one.
Many players I worked with, geographically distant from one another—from AustiKnight Bill Macey to rare friends who I saw only at big Magic events (I lived in Ohio at the time)—didn’t believe me. Then I would crush their playtest StOmPy decks. Games might be close, but they were won.
I didn’t play against StOmPy even once during the Pro Tour.
I didn’t lose a Game One at the Pro Tour, either.
I must have done awesome, right?
Game One record 7-0.
Final Day One record 2-5.
I don’t know if I have ever been so unlucky. You really do have to get hella unlucky to win seven Game Ones, but only two matches, don’t you?
I beat the Zero Effect played by a future Hall of Famer [in a Game One].
It took a lot of soul searching and examining of what went wrong. It was so easy to blame losing on being unlucky. I kept two lands, seven cyclers, and missed my third land drop maybe five different matches. It was so easy.
But one thing that resonated, ultimately, was the belief that if I just drew a land I would win… and then I would pluck a Spawning Pool.
What’s wrong with a Spawning Pool?
Ultimately, I may have gotten a bit unlucky (or maybe I got lucky in winning seven Game Ones)… But what I know I did was make one of the five common mistakes of suboptimal deck design:
1. Too Many Lands Come Into Play Tapped
Urza’s Block was a format full of cards like Wildfire. My deck could lock down the opponent starting on turn two (especially when I had Befouls in from the sideboard). We had Dark Rituals and could Yawgmoth’s Will back a non-echoed Avalanche Riders.
My deck probably had “enough” land… But given the constraints of the format, the presence of big-mana mana denial like Mishra’s Helix, too many of those came into play tapped. This is something that, as a brewer, you want to be very aware of, especially if you are playing expensive cards.
One of the things I have always disliked about certain Ramp decks is the presence of too many lands that hella bone you if you draw them on six… Valakut, the Molten Pinnacle; Evolving Wilds; Terramorphic Expanse. I knew from previous experience with the Squeaky Wheel that the only thing worse than not having the land you need the turn you need it (and this was a deck that needed to hit, say, six)… Is having the land, but not being able to tap it.
Back when you could play Quick ‘N’ Toast / Cruel Ultimatum Control-type decks in Standard, I was (like many Mages) a brewer of such control. I asked the crown prince of Cruel Ultimatum, the Innovator, if a Demigod of Revenge variant I had built had too many lands that came into play tapped. “That’s not the right question,” the responded. “You can add more and more lands, and it doesn’t address the real problem… The real question is if you have enough [not ‘too many’] lands that come into play un-tapped.”
Too Many Lands Come Into Play Tapped Not Enough Lands Come Into Play Untapped
Here’s a question you might have never asked yourself: What is the nature of expertise?
That is, why are some people considered “experts” and other people considered… well… something else? Is it just letters after their names? Some of the smartest / best people in various industries from business to computers are dropouts. How many of the best writers actually studied writing?
While I don’t know that it is an exhaustive definition, a useful way to look at it (from the standpoint of experience [points] as expertise) is that experts have already made that mistake. Hopefully they don’t have to go out there and make that mistake—yes, that one—again. And if you listen to them / hire them, you don’t have to reinvent the veritable wheel when you start up your new project.
Put another way, you don’t want to be that shiny young doctor’s first open-heart surgery.
So in a sense the experts’ experience gives them a different perspective, or more refined base of information, or maybe (somehow) a better way of thinking. If they are experts of making Magic: The Gathering decks, ideally they won’t…
2. Be “Too” In Love With An Idea
Don’t get me wrong. Ideas are great. However there is a wide rift between having even a very good design idea and the hard work of producing an effective deck. One of the barriers that can come up between the two is the devotion the fledgling brewer has with the idea.
Have you ever heard this:
“That’s not what this deck wants to do” (or the equivalent)?
I remember working on “Black Discard” decks back in the mid-1990s (presumably blowing up the opponent’s hand in order to exploit The Rack)… and then not playing Black Vise. Black Vise was a restricted card and might have been so good that even U/W Millstone decks with no other source of damage should have played it (maybe).
I’ve written a few times that my first strong memory of deck design was noticing that, between the cards Kird Ape and Forest, there seemed to be a secret code controlling the “right” answers of how to make a deck, laid out by the designers in Renton, WA. When you figure one of those out, you can’t take it too seriously, though; else you will fall victim to this common problem.
Remember: The goal is not to figure out the cards that “most go together” as some Platonic execution of imagined First Principles. The goal is to make the deck that is most likely to win. And to do that, you sometimes have to distance yourself from the idea that set the genesis of the deck in motion.
Consider this deck:
Bests was a Beasts deck, at least in part. I played it in one PTQ, going 6-2 ultimately (but missing Top 8). The next week, per my tournament report suggestion, Michael Le added Starstorm so as to not make the same mistake I did (no outs to U/G Opposition, which is what ended up winning the PTQ) and won his PTQ with Bests (which was actually not the best, relative to, say, Aggro-Loam… but was pretty good).
What I am getting at in this section is a sense of flexibility that was necessary to make Bests a viable deck. Look at all those themes! Equipment. Random Scrabbling Claws (I loved doing stuff like that). Snow.
What is most important to look at is three-drop sorcery Call of the Herd. Bests was a Beasts deck. I was already compromising on four-drop (downgrading relative to Loxodon Hierarch to chase the Beasts linear via Ravenous Baloth)… Did I want an Elephant machine on three? A more literal-minded Mage might have gone with, say, Hunting Moa or splashed white for Anurid Brushhopper. Both cards have been playable (or even good) in Constructed at one time or another… But I don’t know that either was more appropriate in this case let’s say than Call of the Herd.
Again, ideas are great, but if you adhere to the theme of your first principles too much, you’ll never get to the second and third steps that actually form the path to the, ahem, Next Level.
Besides that, you didn’t come up with the idea, anyway.
I remember playing in the Magic Invitational a few years ago and expounding to the WotC employees present how smart I am at deck design (surprising, I know). I talked about how I had come up with some great idea / deck and how it revolutionized the summer Standard season. Typical fare, and “true” from my standpoint.
Mark Rosewater laughed at me. “You came up with the deck?” I addressed his question talking about differentiating factors, how I had built upon some European version, whatever bs.
The fact is, Mark had come up with the deck months or even years earlier; or at least the idea. That’s the thing about ideas. Mark had them first. It’s okay, brah; you can let go.
3. Not Enough Colors
A moment ago we referenced the card Loxodon Hierarch, which was played in my deck immediately prior to Bests in the 2007 Extended PTQ season. While my G/W Haterator deck won a PTQ in the hands of another player Week One, I still consider playing it as I presented it that week possibly my worst mistake in metagaming and deck positioning, ever.
Coming out of the Extended portion of the World Championships, I was convinced that there were two decks to beat, Boros beatdown and TEPS combo. I tested against those two decks and found that I could beat both of them with G/W Haterator.
For reasons that will be explored more in the next section (or perhaps an insufficient appreciation for the potential offered by Windswept Heath and Temple Garden in the same format), I stuck with straight G/W. As you can see, I had the Boreal Druids in this deck, too.
What went wrong?
I didn’t really consider NO Stick a deck [Isochron Scepter]. I played a variety of different decks in the PTQ—everything from Elemental Bidding to Affinity, Macey Rock, Flow, and the predicted TEPS—but also multiple NO Stick. I never tested against NO Stick because I didn’t think anyone would be foolish enough to play it. I also felt that, as that deck was mono-card disadvantage (everything in their deck seemed to have the imprint mechanic), just getting two-for-oned with Krosan Grip and / or Plow Under would be enough. This was not true, unfortunately. In fact I lost to NO Stick in a game that I stuck all four Plow Unders!
Again—just to be clear—Haterator might have been good enough, and someone else won the exact same day with it… But that doesn’t mean that I, personally, didn’t make the error of playing not enough colors. A simple inclusion of Ancient Grudge splashing off of a Sacred Foundry, a Stomping Ground, and a switch from Boreal Druid to Birds of Paradise could have been the PTQ for me.
I beat every non-NO Stick deck and never that PTQ season lost to NO Stick again (once I had figured out Ancient Grudge after this PTQ’s 5-3 horror movie—all three losses to NO Stick).
You can see the same problem in many decks.
The fact is, in 2011, we have amazing dual lands and ways to fix our colors. Unless there is a very compelling reason (you are playing Strata Scythe and getting tons of value out of it), we probably don’t have cause to not play tons of colors and goofball specialty lands.
PV likes to say that single-color decks typically have weak sideboards. Well even light touches from other colors can help improve that one aspect of potential weakness. I still shake my head at my 2008-2009 self, obsessed with using Rampant Growth and Civic Wayfinder to drive into the Broodmate Dragons “I had invented” instead of going four or five colors and having access to Cryptic Command and Cruel Ultimatum.
Given the lands, there was just no reason; and I was handicapping myself.
You don’t have to reinvent the wheel!
So what drives players to [unnaturally] constraining their colors? For some players, we come from an era of Salt Marsh or Mossfire Valley or even older dual lands in Standard. To us, our formative memories are of a very different quality of dual land than a Sunpetal Grove or a Darkslick Shores. It is only natural that we are suspicious (that is, it takes a bit of inertia-breaking to get our unconscious minds into 2011 even though we consciously know we are in 2011). What we look to—like chivalry—is what was cool when we were kids, this ambiguous notion of “consistency”…
4. “Consistently” 4.5/10
This is a big one to avoid.
There is nothing wrong with consistency in the abstract; what I am talking about here are players who are desperate to play early Stage Two Magic, to the potential detriment of their ability to compete in Stage Three (that is, when most games are won).
You really don’t want to “consistently” hit your land drops, hit your colors (or color, as the consistency-case may be)… Only to lose also-consistently. There is really nothing like hitting your mana, being able to cast your spells, but being grossly out-classed by the available threats in the format. Their deck might be a little less consistent… But it wins more.
A sub-issue that combines parts of this trait and number two can leave us with insufficient answers to common threats. Consider this PTQ deck [that I was quite unsuccessful with]:
The “theme” to this deck was hyper-consistency driven by cantrips and two-for-ones. I had Think Twice on two… and could side into Shadow of Doubt (on two, that could also contain any kind of tutor / land tutor effects). I had Cryptic Command and could (theoretically) cantrip through my deck while dealing with opposing threats with spells like Repeal. I certainly had a lot of two-for-ones.
In the very first round of the PTQ, I lost to a simple Zoo deck—the kind I had prepared for—because my theoretically awesome hand (lots of Repeal) couldn’t handle a Gaddock Teeg. The hand was supposed to be so consistent! I had exactly the cards I was supposed to have against Tarmogoyf beatdown decks (I loved my idea)… And ultimately, my implementation was inappropriate to the threats presented by the actual tournament.
All these traits, together, form a perfect storm that can be best summed up with the statement:
5. Your Deck Plays Terrible Cards
… Or at least plays good cards in not-a-good-way.
Back when Jamie Wakefield was a more active deck designer, and my teammate on Cabal Rogue, the thing that most grated me about him was the appropriation of the word “rogue” in such a way that it actually meant “bad.”
Adrian Sullivan used to say “we don’t play rogue because we want to be different… we play rogue because rogue wins.” Jamie, on balance, seemed to use the word to defend mana inefficiency and an unending stream of pet cards and ideas. Sure, he had a Secret Force or so… But for the most part, the weird stuff was fringe for a reason.
The lands hitting the battlefield tapped might not fit in here (though it certainly affects your operating flexibility), but elsewise when you adhere too closely to an idea, without letting in potentially more appropriate ones, you are limiting your operating flexibility. Instead of being able to do one of three things, you can only do the one [and the one might not be good or at least not “best”]. Limiting colors [when you don’t have to] does essentially the same thing. There is no point to “consistently” getting your one color if all you can muster with that consistency and narrow focus is a 4.5/10 in a format where everyone else is hitting a 6/10 (even if that six is assembled by an average of twos and tens both).
Ultimately what we are looking for via brewing is the opportunity to act in a more flexible way than the rest of the room. Everyone else is on Faeries. Yes, Faeries is a powerful deck, but it is a linear deck that WotC made… and we are seeking to create an experience on our own terms. The difference between the motivation of brewing and successful deck design is the ability to carry that spirit of freedom to the actual tables.
Can you continue to move with great flexibility? That is, do you maintain the option to continue playing the game? Bad brews don’t… They get pigeonholed into one thing and then die on the vine to the superior netdeck. Their goofball land comes into play tapped. They draw a Krosan Grip (which is not bad now) when what they need (to still be ahead three turns from now) is an Ancient Grudge. Not a lot you can do from one of those one-twos but cross your fingers. Remember what we said about multipliers a few weeks ago? Tutors give bad players more opportunities to screw up, but they give the great players more opportunities to show off how smart they are. The good brews give you these kinds of opportunities to forge the right path (even when there is only one right play).
Bonus Section: Innistrad Updates!
1. You want to Next Level the Solar Flare guys and move to the Masterpiece. Ergo you can play a faster Liliana of the Veil and start wrecking them on turn two. You see all the new lands and go crazy playing four Hinterland Harbor and four Isolated Chapel and four Woodland Cemetery. Twelve lands that come into play tapped on turn one might raise an eyebrow, especially when your optimal draw involves a first turn Birds of Paradise; remember this may be an issue, and it may not be… The real question is around how many lands come into play untapped. Your nut draw requires a first turn Forest (or the equivalent)!
2. You are absolutely in love with Forbidden Alchemy. You want to push the limits of how Forbidden you can make your Alchemy and choose almost exclusively cards with flashback. Before you know it, your deck has Army of the Damned and such similar spells; you are so into your potential one-for-nones you miss the fact that your Divine Reckoning can’t actually stop a one-of creature. D’oh! Simple to fix with a little testing, easy to fall prey to at States without.
3. Your first inclination was to go straight green, because, you know Bramblecrush is just so flexible.
4. Just read #3 again, but emphasize a different half of the sentence.