99% Perspiration

Matt Higgs likes to brew, but one of the key lessons he’s learned when brewing is that collaboration and persistence are more important than the brilliant idea you start with. Here he starts out with a Keranos Control deck and ends up someplace quite different.

Thomas Edison may be remembered by some as a prolific inventor and by others as a cutthroat businessman, but he was also a pretty decent wordsmith. One of his most famous quotes took a while for me to understand, but it’s more relevant now than ever: “genius is 1% invention and 99% perspiration.” For those of you that see a masterful invention, a new concept, or an innovation of any kind within any segment of life, you’re seeing a refined, finished product. What you don’t see is the hundreds, thousands, or even tens of thousands of hours spent, the creator’s mental tapestry constantly being woven, changed, and edited, and that creator’s colleagues who help him or her achieve their shared dream. Having a good idea is great, but it’s only the beginning.

Magic is full of shrewd inventors examining the metagame and developing cool concepts and unique interactions into coherent, consistent decks that are designed to exploit the format’s weaknesses and claim victory out of nowhere. Every brewer has this dream at night, hoping their own concoctions will give them a finish they can be proud of, whether it’s at a Friday Night Magic event or the Pro Tour. In the past, several of these innovators have achieved their dream.

Take Ivan Jen.

His Jeskai Ascendancy deck overcame the format’s most powerful behemoths to run away with a trophy. For most, hoisting the trophy is the end of a great day of Ivan, but for him, this was the end of weeks of hard work, testing every combination of potential cards to find the right balance and tuning his machine to run at peak efficiency. Brewers everywhere celebrated his victory.

So where does that leave us this week?

With the SCG Open Series coming to Indianapolis this weekend, I’ve been working on a deck of my own for the last few weeks. When preparing on a budget, which I invariably am, I like to look at my current card pool to see what I’ve got lands for and what I like to play. I take the metagame into consideration, but first I like to craft a skeleton of good cards with fun synergy. A couple weeks ago I traded my Goblin Rabblemasters for several control pieces, and amongst them was a single, throw-in copy of Pearl Lake Ancient. Pearl Lake Ancient and I have been distant acquaintances for a few months; I love “free” activated abilities, and the potential to combo with Master the Way that I discussed in a previous article might deserve a revisit now that we’ve added two sets to Standard. The original list used some green, and while I had a lot of the support, I decided to get the skeleton up in red and blue alone.

If it interests you, I conceived this decklist while taking a late night walk through a friend’s neighborhood to clear my head. Turns out that humming streetlights and the din of the interstate produce Izzet decks.

The deck would rely on the hard-to-kill Keranos and Master the Way to deal lethal damage over the course of a couple turns. The Pearl Lake Ancient combo could play a role, too, if my opponent tapped out. Volcanic Vision, which I’d tried previously in a Temur build alongside Living Lore, had consistently impressed me with its ability to Flame Wave your opponent’s team while keeping your own intact, and recovering a critical instant was a nice bonus.

Building it was easy, and over the following week I tested it against a few buddies. It managed to eke out wins against Mono-Black Aggro and Mardu Planeswalkers, but it fell to Jeskai Dragons pretty firmly after poor sideboarding decisions on my part and with Jeskai Dragons being a strictly superior deck. A few Lightning Strikes in place of the too-cute Volcanic Volley interaction put us back on track. In testing against a friend with Atarka Red, another Jeskai Dragons list, and Abzan Aggro, I discovered the best lines on how to play and sideboard. Before my shop’s weekly Tuesday tournament, I made a few additions.

Into the gauntlet I went.

Round 1 – Abzan Aggro (0-2)

Round 2 – Esper Dragons (1-2)

Round 3 – Mardu Tokens (0-2)

Well that’s not what you want.

I made bad sideboarding decisions against Abzan but also found I wasn’t putting any pressure on him, so Thunderbreak’s removal tax was often negligible. Keranos was really slow, and while cards like Rending Volley, Disdainful Stroke, and Burn Away were great out of the sideboard, they were still just one-for-ones. In the Esper matchup, I did get one win with a Pearl Lake Ancient and Master the Way combo, but only for exactsies, and only because my opponent failed to leave countermagic colors up. He clobbered me the other two games. My Mardu opponent made more tokens than I could handle and finished me off with spells like Elspeth, Stoke the Flames on my Dragons (why not with no pressure?), and some non-interactive keeps on my part.

The deck offered no pressure, was unreliable, slow, and ineffective. It ended up relying completely on the combo, which was only as good as the dozen turns I needed to safely set it up. Keranos was the only other reliable condition to win, but you’d have to hit six or seven times to finish an opponent.

With my third-round opponent off to report, I immediately piled out the deck to look at doing something else. I liked the Dragons, but they weren’t enough to carry it alone. An aggressive build might be correct, leveraging low-cost creatures and spells to keep my opponent on the defensive while I work on resolving a 4/4 flyer for four. I got a lot of input from the opponents I’d faced as well as from nearby players, and I got a huge boost of insight from Chase, my Esper opponent, who brought in Stratus Dancer from his sideboard for the control mirror. Thus, I landed here:

The day after total destruction, I tried this version out against a friendly opponent with a U/R Dragon deck mirror and a Mardu token deck, as well as an Atarka Red opponent. While it struggled at first with Atarka Red, Dragon Fodder helped that more than other spells I tried, including Twin Bolt and maindeck Seismic Rupture, and the combination of Monastery Swiftspear and an impactful two-drop spell was nice, putting your opponent on the back foot early. The other two decks made this deck shine. Silumgar’s Scorn is very powerful, and it didn’t take long for it to show its strength, giving you actual Counterspell in a deck that really needed to sip on mana from turn to turn. Become Immense was a great bullet; with Frontier Bivouac you could splash it nearly for free, and with lots of innocuous Dragon Fodder attackers I could sneak through an immense amount of damage easily. The sideboard was stronger, too; Dragonlord’s Prerogative was better than Dig through Time, and it felt very safe to cast, giving you a legitimate leg up.

This deck was fun, but the mana proved awkward, as hitting Monastery Swiftspear on turn one followed by a Scorn on turn two was nearly impossible with so many basic lands. Wild Slash, while a nice play on turn one against mono-red, was pretty unimpactful. With the red proving to be less necessary, we shook it down to look like this.

This felt a little smoother on paper, so this past Saturday I tested it out at the local shop against Jeskai Dragons, G/R Aggro, and B/R Dragons. I dropped one game against Jeskai after a loose keep, but otherwise the deck performed beautifully.

More than control, I think this is what today’s tempo decks look like. Gone are the days where an Unsummon or Falter would put you far enough ahead on board and in life totals to win games; instead, cheap, focused removal that provides an additional advantage you can leverage (extra damage with Draconic Roar or the efficiency and flexibility of a two-mana hard counter in Silumgar’s Scorn) define that archetype these days. Every spell did some good work, and I’ll be working to refine the list and take some version of it to Indianapolis this weekend. Time is running out, so there’s only a bit of perspiration left in me. Who knows where I’ll land?

Edison didn’t give up when his lightbulb failed, nor did he give up with the hundredth failure. Inspiration not only comes from your own experience and brainpower, but it also comes from the collective minds of your shop buddies who want you to do well, too. I’ve learned something really important over my years of brewing: even highly competitive players who consistently pack a well-tuned, known-quantity deck love to help with brews. Their body of knowledge is invaluable in creating decks that are consistent while still following a different line of attack. They’ve seen cards in action and can provide real-world experience, e.g. “seven mana is a lot of mana, Matt,” or, “How often are you actually attacking with so-and-so?”

In short, Edison would have been a failure without his collaborators; when you brew, listen to your friends and take their criticism in stride. Sacrifices have to be made when you’re building a deck you’re taking to a competitive arena, and remember: winning with a tuned brew you and your friends made is way more fun than losing with a non-collaborative pile you made up alone.

With the tournament this weekend, we’ll really see how important that 99% is.

Any strange Dragon brews floating around in your physical or digital notebooks? Bant Dragons, perhaps, or as I’ve begun to explore, Grixis Dragons? Maybe you’ve found a use for the other Dragons-Matters spells, Orator of Ojutai and Scaleguard Sentinels?