Ask The Drama — Block Constructed, Demi-Pros, and the Art of Cheating

This week’s Ask The Drama has some juicy questions! Jeroen updates his Mono-Black Time Spiral Block Constructed deck, rectifying a few startling omissions and veering from the mono-colored path. He also provides some handy tips for those attending their first Pro Tour, and lays out some common cheating methods that we should all do our best to eradicate from the Beautiful Game.

Welcome to a new edition of my weekly spot here on StarCityGames.com! This week has been pretty stressful, because not only is it the last week of classes at school for me – which means lots of group work and things to finish up – but last Sunday, I decided to sell all my Magic cards.

Don’t get me wrong… this doesn’t mean I’ve decided to quit, but I have just noticed that I haven’t touched those physical cards of mine since Worlds. I still play Magic every day, but I’ve switched to Magic Online instead of Real Life gaming, and nowadays I mainly play Limited. I figured that most of the cards I have weren’t worth much gathering dust, so I decided to get rid of the lot. You’ve gotta understand that this in the end of an era for me, and that it was definitely a big move… but now that it’s done, it feels good.

Now if only that dealer guy would hurry up and give me a price… I am just happy I didn’t have to sort through the (roughly 100k) cards by myself.

Other than all that, things are going well… I am helping some guys out working on Block decks, and generally having fun with the game again. It’s pretty good to be qualified again…

On to this weeks’ questions, plucked straight from [email protected].

Brian Wells is first, with a question about his Limited game:

Through the last few Magic sets, namely Time Spiral and Ravnica Block, I have been striving to up my Limited game. Through my hard work I’ve reached many goals, including a PTQ finals appearance and a 1900 rating, and I’m generally considered one of the top Limited players in my area.

Since the introduction of Planar Chaos, I’ve tried drafting archetypes as often as I can, and I’ve found that I’ve begun to post 3-1 results, or (gasp) 2-2s, where I’d normally post a 4-0 record.

The players I play with aren’t amazing as either players or drafters, but all seem to understand the principles of draft and play. The major issue is that they end up with archetype-dependant cards in decks not designed for them.

My question is: should I consider avoiding drafting in archetype form, and instead strive for the "deck full of good cards," or should I keep trying my best for the consistent archetype decks?

The way normal block draft works is as follows. When you start out with just the first set, synergy is really important. You are drafting from a single pool of cards, and often this set was designed with some synergetic things in mind. This means that, in single set draft formats, decks are always really fast and really synergetic. As soon as you add a second set though, you remove one of those packs filled with synergy, and add a pack of cards that have other tricks and themes.

Sometimes the second set mirrors the first set in themes, like for instance Mirrodin block, and little changes… but sometimes draft completely flops around, and synergy becomes much less important, as is the case with Planar Chaos, and as was the case in Ravnica block.

With Ravnica block it was really obvious, as you simply saw different multicolored options, and cards in other colors that didn’t work well with the first (a good example is the Milling archetype, which simply fell apart). The same effect basically takes place here, except it is not as obvious since you can still draft the same color decks. You can still draft R/G, you can still draft R/B, etc. The thing is that despite the fact that it is not as obvious, Planar Chaos shifts the draft format just as much as Guildpact did. The way you draft R/G should change, as things that were synergetic before – like lots of cheap spells and Empty the Warrens – might not be there so much anymore, as there is a pack less that can give you the goblin producer.

What you describe is basically what happens to me. I’ll be comfortable in a format, and things will be going well, and then as soon as another set is added I start doing worse. This is because I am a player that really needs to practice a lot, and experience situations a lot, before I am able to do well. Just keep at it, and find out the new ways to draft, and you will start to do well again. This means evaluating cards differently for yourself, but it also means figuring out how the people you play with evaluate these cards in the new situation.

Julian Parker gives us some feedback on last week’s article:

RE: Your Mono-Black Control Block deck.

You definitely need 4 Stuffy Doll in that deck (I think they replace the Twisted Abominations, although I like those too), as they are immune to Damnation

Two people were playing a similar Block deck in Manchester, England recently, but they had 4 Shivan Meteors in place of the 4 Sudden Death, and more Red mana

Jules, even if you think the Stuffy Doll combo is very good, that doesn’t mean they have to be played, and it also doesn’t mean they belong in this particular deck. The deck you are describing is one I am sure many players have already been experimenting with, to differing degrees of success. I am not a huge fan myself. Sure, it survives Damnation… but it has a lot of trouble with Funeral Charm, Piracy Charm, and Sudden Death. All cards that see a lot of play, and something I won’t see changing soon. I would definitely never cut Sudden Death, as it is the best removal spell in Block.

One thing I did notice since posting last week’s article is that B/R has started performing very well on Magic Online. The fact that it crushes the White Weenie decks, and also has a passable matchup versus the Teferi decks, means that it is close to perfect for the metagame right now. At least until the Wild Pair decks catch on.

However, I missed a card in my list: Void. I have no idea how I overlooked that beauty, but I think I was focusing a little too much on getting the deck basically Mono-Black. Void is just so good that I feel it should definitely be in the deck. This means you should probably play some more Red, and that gives you room for better finishers, like Bogardan Hellkite and Disintegrate. Those happen to work great with the storage lands, so play four of those… and there you go, full circle!

Ryan Trepanier is next, with a question about skillz:

How do you measure the skill of a non-pro player? I’m a Demi-Pro – I’ve been to the tour once, I’ve made Day 2 at a GP, and I’ve made Top 8 in a handful of PTQs. Does that make me better than all the people who have not been to the Pro Tour? Or is rating the best measure of a player?

So now, alongside Pro, Wannabe-Pro, Semi-Pro, and Rising Star, we have the Demi-Pro. This sure is getting out of hand fast… To me, a pro is someone who:

A. Makes their money playing the game, or
B. Is qualified for every PT, a.k.a. Pro-Level 3.

All these other things? Not so much pro.

As for how to measure skill… to me, is very simple. It has nothing to do with rating, money-finishes, or PT qualifications. Nope, it has to do with, well… skill. I know that sounds weird, so I’d better explain.

Rating is nothing more than a measurement of momentum. If a player has been winning a lot recently, he will have a high rating. If a player has been sucking it up, but had a high rating before, he will now have a lower rating. Does that mean he is better or worse than the other player? He used to have an equally high rating. No, it just means that he has hit a rough patch, might not be so lucky anymore, or just stopped preparing so well, like Gadiel…

No, there really is no actual great way to measure a player’s skill, apart from valuing it yourself from seeing them play. How often does a player come back into a game he looked sure to be losing? How often does he make mistakes when he shouldn’t, and how does he play simple games? That is how you can tell if a player is good. Now, you can’t really do this with every player in the world, so often we rate people as good or bad by their results – such as the amount of tournaments they win – but that might just mean he got a little bit luckier than the other guy. A player that made Top 8 four times, but bombed out for the rest… is he better than a guy with five Top 16s and only a single Top 8? Who knows?

The question really is: why would you want to compare players? It doesn’t matter, apart from stupid bragging rights and stuff like that. Luckily, this is not a game where only the best have fun, or can be successful. Everyone can play their part. I don’t see the need to desperately compare players.

This is an interesting topic though, so I wonder what you guys think… Please let me know by email or in the forums.

Davin Frankosky has a more factual question:

I just qualified for my first Pro Tour, over in Japan, but I’m finding the whole situation rather stressful. How do you usually go about (or used to go about before making friends on the pro tour to assist you) doing things in foreign countries, like booking hotels, finding train stations, etc. Because right now it’s a really complicated process.

Congrats on making your first PT Davin! You sure picked a nice one to qualify for, as Japan is… well, a little harder to navigate for the first time than, say, PT: Boston. I know from experience that navigating a big foreign city can be tough, so I’ll try and give you some tips.

The first thing I can tell you is: try and rely on the information Wizards gives you. They often have a lot of useful information on their site prior to the PT, such as player information and site information, but also staff hotel information, directions from the airport to the site, and other important things. The staff hotel is often not the cheapest hotel around, but it is usually the closest and best option available (if you are worried about location). The best part about this is that often, once you get there, the lobby will be swarming with Magic players, and it is easy to meet people and have fun.

Make sure that you print out the travel information on the Wizards site, as Yokohama does not have it’s own airport, and you will have to take a train for a couple of hours. Often it is easy to recognize Magic players – we have our own look – and you can tag along for the hardest ride. Usually everyone gets in on the same (or similar) days, so airports usually have a lot of gamers ganging up. Most of the time, as far as I have known, we are a friendly bunch, and no-one will mind you tagging along to make sure you get there.

Bring your stack of Pro Player cards… you might be able to spot a Magic player a little easier that way!

If money is a problem, and you want to go on the cheap, then Japan is not the place to go. There are cheap hotels, but I have yet to discover a website that gets you what you need. Usually hotels.com or comparable sites will guide you to nearby hotels very easily, but Japan is not the same.

I hope this has been helpful. If you have more questions, be sure to ask me, even if they are more specific. In fact, that is the last tip I have for you: if you don’t know, ask someone who does. I’d be more than happy to help you, but even people at Wizards like Andy Heckt – the player manager dude there – will help you as best as he can, if you drop him an e-mail.

Finally, some questions from fellow Premium writer Paul Jordan:

What are the most common forms of cheating on the PT (and at PTQs), and what steps can honest players take to better identify them?

Can you recall specific times when you know your opponent cheated against you but were unable to prove it?

What the hell is happening on Lost?

Wow Paul, you really like to ask the controversial ones! I’ll try to remain neutral as possible… I’m not trying to accuse anyone of anything.

The Stupidity Cheat
People will try and do stuff they know they cannot do just to see if they can get away with it, and if they get caught, they will just act like they didn’t see it, and act sorry. This is an especial nasty one, since it is very different to catch, and there really is no downside to trying it. The best way to handle it is to make sure you call a Judge as soon as something shady happens. The judges might not be able to catch the cheat or the cheater, but stuff like this piles up fast, and if a player does this a lot, they will know to keep an eye on him.

The Language Cheat
This is a variant of the first one, but instead of acting like they don’t know the rules, they act like they don’t understand or speak the language. Everyone who plays this game knows what is going on, so this is easier to catch. People still aren’t hard enough on this, and they need to call judges a lot sooner. That’s the only way to solve it.

Marked Cards / Sleeves
This doesn’t happen a lot anymore, what with all the random deck checks and all, so you shouldn’t immediately start checking everyone’s sleeves closely. Just be sure to call a judge as soon as you notice something that seems fishy.

Drawing Extra Cards, or Stacking
Basically mechanical cheats. These take a fair amount of concentration to spot. I always make sure, whenever I play a game at a high level, that I am always focused during a game. I always pay attention to what my opponent is doing. Do the same and they won’t be able to do this. Once again, call a judge as soon as you notice something is off.

Slow Play
When a person is up a game, or can’t win a game anymore, they could start playing really slowly to get a draw or a win for free. Usually this is in game 2 or 3, but I have also seen people slow play game 1, to stall out as much time as possible, and then speed up for the last two games if they lose the first. The most important rule to stop slow play is to call a judge as early as possible. Calling a judge with two minutes left on the clock won’t do you any good, since they can’t realistically do anything at that point. As soon as you notice a person is starting to play slowly, or plays slowly in general, just call a judge and ask him to keep an eye on the speed of the game.

These are basically the major ones that are still out there. Stuff like stacking decks and adding cards doesn’t happen so much anymore, thanks to the great steps the DCI and judges everywhere have taken, so all we have left are these seemingly innocent cheats that can pile up.

The most important thing is to call a Judge as often and as soon as possible whenever you feel anything fishy is going on. People are afraid to do this since they feel this way they are accusing people of cheating. You are not; you aren’t accusing anyone of anything, you are just trying to assure nothing out of the ordinary will happen. You are just trying to clean up the game we all love.

As for stuff that has happened to me personally… well, I am not going to say too much about that, since we have had some bad experiences, and I don’t want to open that can of worms right now. I always am very aware of what happens, and call judges pretty quickly, so nothing major has ever happened to me.

Except for that one time I played…

Nah, I’m not going there.

As for Lost… you tell me! The show hasn’t impressed me much lately, as I am getting the feeling there is no real Master Plan. It feels as if they are just making things up as they go. I feel the show has dropped off considerably. Of course, I still want to know what is going to happen next, so I still watch all the time. It used to be the best show out there (during Season 1), but now I don’t even feel it is in the Top 10.

And that’s it for this week! Be sure to keep sending me questions to [email protected], and I’ll be sure to keep answering them!