Breaking Formats, Color Switching, and… Thoughtbind?

Jeroen continues his popular series, answering a myriad of Magical questions posted by fans. Today, he concentrates of the Art of Format Breaking. He also touches the subject of switching colors in Draft, and has a few choice words to say on the subject of Thoughtbind in Standard. Remember, send you questions to Jeroen at the usual address!

Despite the questions arriving very slowly these days, I found some more to cover during this instalment of my column. Don’t make me beg: please start sending some more. It is hard for me to talk about a lot of my own Magic testing, since all I do these days is test for the upcoming Pro Tour Charleston, so I need your help! I want to know what you want to know. [email protected] is the address… use it! On with the questions:

Dan Lewis wrote:

Jeroen, coming from an area with very few live players (and even fewer good ones), it’s always been a problem trying to break a new format.

When you guys set out to break a format, what kind of process do you go through? It seems like there’s such a huge pool with so many possibilities it would take forever to find the ins and outs and come up with an optimal decklist. I’m assuming the first thing your team does is update the established decklists with the new cards… but what about finding the new decks, such as dredgatog?

When you have a brand new format, how to you navigate through it within a small window of time? Do you just allow everyone to build whatever decks they want, and just playtest over and over until you find a strong one and improve on that, or do you try to look at the format as a whole and assign out specific strategies to build on?

Whenever we try to do this, we find strong decks, but narrowing the possibilities within a short amount of time seems incredibly hard among 4-5 people. How do you guys manage a fresh format and find the future netdecks within the time limit?

A very nice question, and one I can easily answer since I am smack-dab in the middle of testing a new format myself. First of all, Extended is completely different from Block. No matter how many rotations have occurred, there are still decks to examine. When we started testing for LA we knew that decks like Tog, Goblins, and Affinity would still be around, no matter how much the format had changed. The first thing we did was build those decks and test them against each other. After this, we started tinkering with the new cards – like the dredge ones – and came up with lists. This isn’t perfect, which is why usually you will find the more evolved lists (“better” lists, perhaps) later in the season, but it gives you a good base to start. Remember that everyone is in the same boat, and you don’t need to have the best deck in the format… just the best deck that time affords you to make. This is how Antoine won that PT with a deck that wasn’t the best Tog list, just the version he thought was the best given his limited amount of time.

The same is true for Block, as most of the time the way to start here is simple: start making decks. In this format every color combination can be good, which makes you feel overwhelmed, but a good way to start is look at what cards did well in Standard. These cards tend to be stronger than the others, and should give you a good base. Then make a list of cards you feel are the best in the Block – cards like Simic Sky Swallower, Glare of Subdual, and Dovescape – and try and make decks that accommodate these cards. After that, it comes down to playing and tuning.

Don’t worry if your deck isn’t the best it could be… just make it as good as you can make it in the time allowed.

The next question I got from Robert Carrillo, sent to me at [email protected]:

When is it too late to change your base colors? I’ve had many experiences where I’m pretty solidly in a two-color combination in pack 1 – let’s say U/B – but in the last six picks or so, I’ll see a lot of good Green stuff going around. I’ve never taken the plunge and decided to change my colors then and there, and usually I’m relatively successful anyway so it doesn’t bother me that much. But I have to wonder sometimes if I could’ve ended up with an even better deck if I had switched.

Now, I understand you’re not a very big fan of signaling, so maybe you’ll just say "don’t switch – it doesn’t mean anything," but I’d like to hear your opinion on this.

There are a couple of problems with switching late, and they all contribute to the question of whether to switch or to stick. Here’s some, in one of my patented lists:

1) The cards you get late are never “great.” Sure, when you get a late pick bomb you will switch often enough; that’s an easy decision. But is switching for a 6th pick Greater Mossdog really something you would want to do? I don’t think so.

2) One card in a color is not a sign. You see that one Mossdog there, but that doesn’t mean that more will come. What if you pick that doggie and there is no more Green?

3) There are usually still some cards in your colors in there that are slightly worse. In most cases you can just take a Terraformer over that Mossdog and stick to your guns. That makes the decision even more unprofitable, because this means that trying to switch will leave your deck a few cards short.

All these reasons mean that often it is not worth switching unless you have a very loose color commitment. This means that you might feel you are in Red because you have that one Lightning Helix, but it really is your only Red card at that point. Often in pack 1 I’ll try and spread out, trying not to commit too many cards in colors, and make sure that I can go either way in the next couple of packs. In general, if I am committed to colors already, I’ll stick to my guns and only switch when I have room to drop a color, or when the card is very good.

Of course, all of this is a little different in the current format, as switching might mean that you pick up a different third color and still have a fine deck. Just be sure to keep in mind what is coming in the next packs, and what guilds you want to be in. Planning is far more important in this format than the actual cards in the packs.

Three Dreams of Countermagic

Next up, a completely different kind of question, from Alan Russette:

Perhaps this will seem like a completely nonsensical, idiotic question, but I’m going to ask it anyway: why is no one playing Thoughtbind in Standard? It’s the same cost as Hinder (without the double Blue) and counters 73% of the spells in the format. And if we go with Flores’ suggestion that any spell over four mana should win the game, then that means it should counter damn near every spell that sees competitive play, except the ones you would have lost to anyway. Is it really any more useless than a late-game Mana Leak or Remand? It also counters every component of Ghost Dad and BW Husk.

I would love an explanation.

First of all, there are no stupid questions, only stupid answers. Trust me, your question is fine.

As for Thoughtbind, as you mention yourself, it only counters spells that do not win the game automatically. Every spell over four mana will be so powerful that you will definitely want to counter it. That’s why cards like Hinder see far more play, as they just deal with everything.

Thoughtbind, despite dealing with a whole lot, does not deal with everything. The great part about counterspells is their versatility, and their ability to deal with every kind of threat. Thoughtbind does not do this, and there are better cards in the same slot competing against it: the cheaper Mana Leak, the stronger Hinder, and the more tempo oriented and cheaper Remand. They get chosen above Thoughtbind because… well, they are simply better.

Zach Kudish, with the next question, wants to know:

I am an aspiring Magic player and have managed to spend almost all of my extra time, and even some time that I should not waste, playing Magic. Ever since I had a great run a year ago at Regionals in NJ (7-2) I began thinking about playing on the Pro Tour. I was wondering if you have any advice that you can spare, so that I can make that dream a reality.

The Hourglass of Improvement

Technically speaking, every single column of mine is an effort to improve your play. There is no easy, two-step way to “get better.” The most obvious answers are the correct ones, and are what should make you better: play infinite, read infinite, think about the game non-stop. There is no way to get better at the game without doing these three things, as they are most essential. There are more specific ways of improving certain parts of your game, but those warrant more questions, and it is hard for me to see what you really need work on at this time.

The last question is one asked by Kevin Folinus:

I understand the importance of a curve so that you utilize your resources. Usually during a draft I just try and keep particular slots from getting clogged. My question is this: What is the optimal number of creatures/spells per slot?

Also, is there anything important regarding curve in the current format? For example, if I’m drafting RUG can I fill the top end of my curve during Ravnica/Guildpact because of the number of good low mana spells in Dissension?

One thing I see people doing wrong when they are drafting a curve is putting in their spells in that curve. Sure, a Fiery Conclusion is two mana, but it should never be in your curve as there is no way you will ever want to cast it on turn 2. I see a lot of people cheat on their curve this way, pretending they have a lot of two-drops when all those two-drops are cards like the Conclusion and Pyromatics. Cards you will never want to play on turn 2 in general. This means that when drafting a curve, you should normally only include creatures and spells you do want to cast in curve, like Signets that are optimal on that turn. For example, Honden of Seeing Winds was not a creature, but it was a five drop that you would often want to play on turn 5, so belongs in the curve… whereas Compulsive Research can be cast on turn 3, but is usually not cast at that time, and therefore should not belong in the curve.

Now that that is clear, we get to the curve itself. The real answer is that the way your curve should look depends on the deck you are drafting. Some decks need a very good curve to win, as they need to put on pressure from the get go and beat down fast. Examples of this include the bloodthirst RG decks, with Scab-Clan Maulers, meaning that you need a bunch of one-drops to make them work their best; and WR, which needs two drops like Sell-Sword Brute. On the other hand, you have decks that depend on a slower gameplan, aiming to gain control. Those decks do need early drops to keep up, but in general they don’t need a curve as tight. In general, you will often want a deck that is as cheap as possible within its given strategy.

Trying to fill your curve in later packs is very scary, as sometimes it will simply not come together, and you’ll not find what you are looking for. This means that I keep an eye on my curve at all times, concentrating on what I have in excess and what I have little of, and draft accordingly. You can’t depend on that last pack, as not getting there will just mean your deck is horrible. Drafting a curve is something you do with every pick, not something you try to fix in the last pack when you notice something went wrong.

The things to remember are: when you are drafting an aggressive deck, make sure you have plenty of early drops as you will need them; when you are drafting a more controlling deck, you don’t need as many, but you still need them to survive against those aggressive decks.

That’s it for this week! If you are enjoying these articles, make sure you send me those questions. These articles are only as good as the questions I get. [email protected] is the address, in case you guys were wondering.

Back to Block for me… see y’all next week!


PS: I haven’t included a ffeJ quote in a long while, I know. This is because the man said he needed everything he had to write his Invitational Report. I am pretty pissed it is yet to get here… [Part 1 is here today! – Craig.]

PPS: Last week I said Krempels and Sonne were teaming, yet I forgot their third: Billy Moreno. That makes this team the clear favorite, as Billy is the best Constructed player around, and Sonne’s team history is impressive, to say the least.