Black Magic – Snippets from the Grind

Wednesday, December 1st – After 125+ SOM drafts and 111 two-man matches on MTGO, Sam Black wants to share what he’s discovered from his days grinding. Use his tips this weekend at the SCG Richmond Open and Invitational!

Recently, I’ve been playing a lot more Magic than I usually do. I’m well known for having played a lot of Magic in my day, but that’s because it’s been a long day. I’ve played consistently since 1994, but I’ve done a lot of “durdling” in that time. Board games, watching shows, reading articles, going out, and apparently even writing are things I usually do that I’ve been largely forgoing for the last month or so.

Before GP Nashville, I was at thirty Pro Points for the 2010 season. With only two events left in the season, it looked like I’d be level 6 again next year. However, a tenth place finish in Nashville earned me four points, and now a Top 32 finish at Worlds would grant me level 7 next year. Top 32 isn’t something I can count on, but it’s a very realistic goal, and level 7 is very big game (the largest monetary jump in levels).

What this means is that I’m working as hard as ever for this event.

I’ve been happy with my results in Limited throughout this season and disappointed with my Constructed performance—the opposite of last year. This year I’ve been working with an excellent group of players for the PTs, and we’ve had awesome decks, but I personally haven’t done well with them, and I think I just need to play as many games as I can to prepare for Constructed tournaments. So my plan for Worlds is to spend all of my time playing Standard two-mans on MTGO. I’m currently 69-42, and I know this because I’ve been keeping a spreadsheet of my deck, my opponent’s deck, our results, and some notes.

I’ll get to some things you may be interested in about Standard soon, but it’s been awhile since I’ve written, so I have some catching up to do.

Before Nashville I did roughly 125 MTGO SOM drafts. Detailed Limited articles are clunky and boring, and pick orders are more or less useless if you’ve played a set at all; detailed archetype overviews can be useful, but I don’t have a single archetype I like so much I think I should tell everyone how to draft it specifically, so instead, I’ll just give you some general thoughts.

Previously, I basically covered the idea of Poison, Metalcraft, and Good Stuff as the decks that can be drafted generally in Scars. The format is full of awesome synergies and awesome cards that don’t support those synergies. For the most part, I’ve concluded that I’d generally much rather have good cards than good synergies, but some of the synergistic cards happen to just be good, like Cystbearer, which I love regardless of what other cards are in my deck.

Blue is really weird in Scars. The commons are terrible. There’s nothing you’d ever be happy about first-picking, and there really aren’t that many cards you’re generally happy to play. However, the cards happen to match up really well against the format, and I kept finding that whatever deck I was playing with, I really didn’t want to play against a bunch of Neurok Invisimancers, Darkslick Drakes, and Sky-Eel Schools. The blue decks just happen to be very well positioned in the format.

There are a huge number of gimmicky aggro decks that can exist—Furnace Celebration, Molder Beast, Equipment, Kuldotha Rebirth—and often these decks can be combined in various ways. All of them can be pretty good, but I don’t think any of them are worth forcing. The way that I like to approach these decks is to pay a lot of attention to what the bad cards you’re passing early are. If you happen to notice a lot of cards for a certain niche deck that look like they’re going to table, you can plan for it far in advance, and if the first one doesn’t table, you can just give up on it. I draft Furnace Celebration somewhat frequently but almost never before pick 9. When I open it, I know it’s likely to come back, and I’ll consider taking Panic Spellbombs and Vulshok Replicas a little higher.

Another note I touched on earlier, but just to reinforce, is that any of the mechanics (poison, metalcraft, good stuff) can be played at any tempo/strategy (aggro, midrange, control). I think too many people draft poison in particular as if it has to kill the opponent as soon as possible. Cystbearer is better than Plague Stinger if you want to be able to block and not that much worse if you’re looking to attack. My desire for flexibility puts Cystbearer way ahead of Plague Stinger in my mind.

Big, colored creatures are awesome. Alpha Tyrranax is the real sleeper here, but he represents a broader concept. Artifacts are easy to destroy, but colored creatures usually have to be killed with damage or -1/-1 counters, so a high toughness is worth a lot more on a colored creature than an artifact creature. Almost nothing deals with rares like Quicksilver Gargantuan and Engulfing Slagwurm, so despite their extremely high casting cost, I think those two are somewhat underrated. Acid Web Spider is one of the best uncommons. I’ve been pretty happy with decks full of huge, colored creatures and for the early game, either infectors, which make awesome blockers, or Myr, especially Palladium, which I believe should be taken highly but only because he’s one of the best cards in this deck. He’s not impressive in the average metalcraft deck.

The most counterintuitive thing I’ve learned in SOM Limited is probably in Sealed. Slow, grinder cards that generally give you inevitability like Trigons are much worse in Sealed than they are in Draft. To me this completely defies conventional wisdom, which is that slower cards are better in Sealed, but in this Sealed format, almost all long games are determined by bombs, and whatever incremental advantage you were able to grind out of your Trigon is likely not going to compete with some random bomb. Trigons can lock up a game in Draft, which is why they’re good, but don’t look to do that in Sealed. There’s a good chance you should leave Trigon of Infestation in the sideboard.

Myr kinda suck. There are decks that want them. Sometimes you have too many four-casting-cost spells, and they’re often sweet in metalcraft, but in most good infect decks or a lot of solid, value decks, they’re just not what you want to be doing. You can’t exactly count on them as a mana source because they die so easily, but they don’t represent much more board presence than a land. If you have a lot of equipment, a lot of four-plus-casting-cost spells, or a lot of metalcraft, they can be great, but in an aggro deck full of two and three-drops—just pass them.

This is

 more general, but if you draft on MTGO a lot, you should go to your collection sometime and look over your numbers. Look at the total number of commons from Scars you own and divide that number by 101. That’s the average number of a commons you should own. If you have more than that of something, you probably value it more than other people; if you have fewer, you probably value it lower. Look at the outliers and ask yourself if you really think they’re better/worse than other people think they are. My outliers are Cystbearer, Instill Infection, and Corpse Cur, and I’m happy to have a lot of those. I do think they’re better than most people give them credit for.

You can also show only one color at a time and compare how many cards of each color you own to get a better feel for color preferences you might not be aware you had. You can learn a lot by taking time periodically to look through various numbers in your collection and think about what they say about your drafting.



Let’s start with a
Metagame Breakdown

of MTGO two-mans this week as determined by what I’ve played against in 111 matches:

Vampires 22
  Black 7
  B/R 15
Valakut Ramp 15
Boros 12
WW Equipment 11
U/B Control 8
R/U/G 6
U/W Control 4
Kuldotha 4 (+1 Goblins w/o Rebirth)
Eldrazi Green 4 (+1 G/W)
Pyromancer Ascension 3
Other 20

Less relevant, but possibly still interesting data, their records against me:

  Black: 2-5
  B/R: 8-7
Valakut Ramp: 8-7
Boros: 4-8
WW Equipment: 4-7
U/B Control: 1-7
R/U/G: 2-4
U/W Control: 2-2
Eldrazi Green: 0-5
Pyromancer Ascension: 1-2

So far I’ve been playing R/U/G, B/R Vampires, U/W Control, Kuldotha, U/G Genesis Wave, and a little B/U/G.

Thoughts on some of Vampires’ more common matchups:

Vampires vs. Valakut: I’ve only played this matchup twice, and it’s gone both ways. Game 1 is a relatively non-interactive race, and the decks are similar speeds. After sideboarding, Valakut generally has Pyroclasm and/or more burn and Obstinate Baloths, which can be surprisingly frustrating for Vampires. Vampires can bring in Mark of Mutiny, but it hasn’t been the all-star I’ve been hoping it would be. Vampires has to decide if they want to stay the course and try to race, exposing themselves to Pyroclasm, or if they want to try get bigger and/or more disruptive. Given than the racing plan wasn’t that great before Valakut got much better at it, I’d say you’re probably looking to change gears. My preferred method of doing that at the moment is Abyssal Persecutor.

Vampires vs. Boros: I’m 3-1 and 7-2 in games as Vampires in this matchup. Chapin wrote that Vampires doesn’t want to play against other aggro decks because their creatures are so bad in combat, but that hasn’t exactly been my experience. B/R Vampires has such an excellent removal suite that opposing creature decks can sometimes be an ideal pairing. In particular, decks with removal have a hard time beating a combination of Lightning Bolt, Arc Trail, Gatekeeper of Malakir, and Skinrender, all of which I’m playing large numbers of. Abyssal Persecutor has also been awesome here, as in most places.

Vampires vs. WW Equipment: I’ve lost the two times I’ve played this as Vampires. Quest for the Holy Relic has been a huge part of that. It’s possible that if my removal had more cards like Smother and Doom Blade rather than Arc Trail and Skinrender, I’d be better able to beat Quest, but as is, turn 1 Quest has been a nightmare.

Vampires vs. R/U/G: As Vampires I won the one time I played this matchup, and it was entirely on the back of my sideboard Swords of Body and Mind. If people switch to Chapin’s list, which has Tumble Magnet, Acidic Slime, and Inferno Titan rather than basically nothing to deal with Sword, this plan will become much less effective. As R/U/G, I’ve split matches with both kinds of Vampire decks. Almost all of my wins were on the back of Avenger of Zendikar, who has been awesome in that matchup, but I suspect Inferno Titan would be almost as good. I currently play a mix, but I only recently added Inferno Titan. One of my losses was just to very good, aggressive draws, and the other was to Sword of Body and Mind.

I’d wanted to talk about other common matchups, but since I haven’t played Valakut or the Stoneforge Mystic decks yet, I don’t have all that much other information.


The format seems to be around 18-23% each of Vampires, Stoneforge Mystics, Primeval Titans, Jaces, and other decks, which is a fairly significant shift from how it looked pretty recently when it seemed closer to half-Jace, half-Titan. Major driving forces behind “other” decks are often Fauna Shaman or Goblin Guide.

Aggro is a bigger portion of the metagame than it often is, which has led to a lot of cheap, instant-speed removal. The prevalence of black creatures has largely chased Doom Blade out of the format. Ratchet Bomb is excellent right now, as it’s good against all the aggro decks and serviceable as a preemptive answer to Jace; although it’s terrible against Valakut. Tumble Magnet is somewhat similar—awesome against equipment, useful against other creatures, serviceable in control matchups that care about protecting planeswalkers from manlands, and terrible against Valakut.

As decks start loading up on efficient board control to combat Vampires and Stoneforge Mystics, the field gets very soft to Valakut. Most of my wins against Valakut have been with Kuldotha Red. I’m not sure that that’s the best way to beat Valakut, but the Rebirth deck definitely seems like a “real deck,” as it didn’t seem to have a terrible matchup against any of the most popular decks; although I never played it against R/U/G, which seems like a very hard matchup after sideboard.

No ultimate conclusions yet; I still have several days of grinding before I’m there, but as always, I hope this has been a useful peek into the process.

Thanks for reading,