Chatter of the Squirrel – Ad Infinitum

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I don’t think I’d cause too much of an uproar if I referred to Gabriel Nassif as one of the greatest, if not the greatest, Constructed players of all time. He was recently voted into the Invitational as a “Constructed Master” despite a lack of big finishes this year mostly on legacy alone, and I think that serves as a testament to his masterful reputation. If I was to find out what made a good deck, I thought, surely I could look to him…

Here at Chatter we’re known for our thorough beating of dead horses. It’s a personal weakness of mine, and hey, they’re cheaper than punching bags at least. But when I saw the following forum post, I knew I wouldn’t be able to resist:

“One thing that I was careful to do in my 4/1 article was to list the best decks of all time, by format, and show how they were configured numerically. I notice no one on the other side has ever tried to do that. There is a simple reason for that. People gravitate towards two things in written media: things they can agree with and things they can disagree with. People love to agree when they’re wrong. They’re like insecure girls who cheat on their boyfriends to make themselves feel pretty. You see? Someone else wants me. I must be pretty. Go ahead and replace that with I must be right.

That’s a michaelj, in case it wasn’t obvious. And while I agree with the “insecure girls” simile, I couldn’t resist the implicit challenge. At the very least, I was curious: are all the “best decks” really amalgamations of masterfully-aligned fours and ones? More to the point, and much more relevant for the aspiring deckbuilder trying to make a dent in such a dense format as Valencia Extended, is the paradigm of “start with a bunch of four-ofs, and then justify any number-switches you make to threes and twos” even valid? Can we question the assumption that all things being equal you’re going to try and put four of a certain card in a deck – is it more complicated than that? I set out absent an agenda and plotted to see what I could find.

Flores had a lot of examples in his article that attempted to prove his point, but I had a few issues with them.

For one thing, I ascribe a lot less significance to decks created prior to about 1999, the decks of Magic’s Golden Age. This is simply because it was much more important then to create a “good deck,” a deck that in some kind of vacuum reaches a vertex of power and consistency. In the old days – and I was around then, if only as a Small Child – there was nothing of the media inundation we have become used to today. The Dojo existed, sure, and UseNet, and even a few trans-continental communities of top-tier pros. But the Japanese giant was sleeping, there was no MTGO, no MagicTheGathering.com amalgam of Top 8 decklists. Put simply, you got a bunch of mileage out of not being bad that you can’t really enjoy today. That’s not enough anymore.

Even more significantly, though, the criteria for a “best deck,” or even a “really good deck,” was ill-defined. There was more than a hint of a “the best decks are oriented upon the 4-1 model, and these decks did well, and are oriented upon the 4-1 model, so must ergo be the best decks” string of logic. Richard takes the position that even if the best decks in a given format consisted entirely of fours and ones, the fact that they are so composed doesn’t necessitate that being so composed is what gives them their “best”-ness. That sentence was more convoluted than a Mircea Eliade treatise on phenomenology, and for that I apologize, but in an effort to please Stuart Wright I’m trying to insert as much arcane irrelevant academia as I can into each one of my articles. But I don’t think it’s necessary to even go as far as Richard goes. I don’t even agree that Mike’s cross-section encompasses Magic’s true “best decks.” They’re all good, to be sure, but a lot of people are good.

So I started doing some homework.

I don’t think I’d cause too much of an uproar if I referred to Gabriel Nassif as one of the greatest, if not the greatest, Constructed players of all time. He was recently voted into the Invitational as a “Constructed Master” despite a lack of big finishes this year mostly on legacy alone, and I think that serves as a testament to his masterful reputation. If I was to find out what made a good deck, I thought, surely I could look to him. I decided to concentrate solely on maindeck composition since Mike rightly pointed out that sideboarding often forces necessary concessions to the deck’s ideal integrity.

Nassif has five Constructed Pro Tour Top 8s. Here are his lists*:

Venice ‘03

2 Forest
18 Mountain
4 Wooded Foothills
3 Clickslither
3 Gempalm Incinerator
4 Goblin Goon
3 Goblin Grappler
4 Skirk Prospector
4 Goblin Piledriver
4 Goblin Sledder
2 Menacing Ogre
2 Rorix Bladewing
4 Sparksmith
3 Threaten

Worlds ‘04

3 Temple of the False God
4 Flooded Strand
4 Cloudpost
7 Island
7 Plains
3 Exalted Angel
2 Eternal Dragon
3 Wayfarer’s Bauble
2 Akroma’s Vengeance
4 Mana Leak
3 Annul
3 Condescend
3 Rewind
4 Wrath of God
4 Decree of Justice
4 Thirst for Knowledge

Pro Tour: New Orleans 2003

4 Ancient Tomb
4 City of Traitors
4 Island
4 Polluted Delta
4 Rishadan Port
4 Brainstorm
2 Chrome Mox
4 Force Spike
1 Gilded Lotus
4 Goblin Charbelcher
4 Grim Monolith
4 Mana Severance
1 Mindslaver
4 Mystical Tutor
1 Rushing River
2 Talisman of Dominance
3 Talisman of Progress
4 Tinker
2 Voltaic Key

Pro Tour: Kobe 2004

16 Forest
4 Cloudpost
3 Stalking Stones
1 Blinkmoth Nexus
4 Solemn Simulacrum
4 Viridian Shaman
1 Darksteel Colossus
1 Platinum Angel
1 Leonin Abunas
1 Duplicant
4 Oblivion Stone
4 Tooth and Nail
2 Talisman of Unity
2 Mindslaver
4 Reap and Sow
4 Sylvan Scrying
4 Oxidize

World Championships 2006

4 Adarkar Wastes
4 Hallowed Fountain
2 Flagstones of Trokair
4 Urza’s Mine
4 Urza’s Tower
4 Urza’s Power Plant
1 Urza’s Factory
1 Plains
2 Chronosavant
4 Martyr of Sands
3 Weathered Wayfarer
4 Wrath of God
4 Remand
3 Condemn
2 Spell Burst
1 Dizzy Spell
4 Azorius Signet
4 Compulsive Research
4 Proclamation of Rebirth
1 Muse Vessel

Four of these decks feature at least four “threes and twos,” although saying that about the New Orleans deck is a little misleading because the separate Talisman copies accomplish effectively the same thing. My point is not to say “nah nah nah boo boo the 4-1 theory is invalid” because of these results; in fact, they’re not nearly conclusive or comprehensive enough to prove that. What matters is that the best Constructed player in the world clearly thinks there’s something more going on with a “good deck” than the apparent consistency of its slots. Sometimes he chooses to go “4-1,” and other times he doesn’t. I’m not saying that Mike doesn’t realize or acknowledge this, because he does. What I am trying to make apparent is that Nassif is not going to go around playing decks that are obviously sub-optimal. There’s got to be something more going on. Note, too, that several copies of cards like Gempalm Incinerator that are frequently assumed to be auto-4-ofs have been cut from these lists.

Another less arbitrary way to measure a good deck, aside from the caliber and judgment of the player playing it, is its success at a given tournament. For an ideal model of that, we don’t have to look back very far:

Luis Scott-Vargas, Pro Tour San Francisco, 1st place.

3 Urborg, Tomb of Yawgmoth
1 Academy Ruins
4 Tolaria West
4 River of Tears
4 Terramorphic Expanse
2 Molten Slagheap
2 Urza’s Factory
3 Island
1 Mountain
1 Plains
1 Swamp
3 Shadowmage Infiltrator
1 Bogardan Hellkite
1 Detritivore
1 Teferi, Mage of Zhalfir
1 Triskelavus
4 Damnation
2 Void
2 Tendrils of Corruption
1 Slaughter Pact
1 Strangling Soot
3 Mystical Teachings
3 Careful Consideration
2 Foresee
1 Haunting Hymn
1 Pact of Negation
3 Coalition Relic
4 Prismatic Lens

Three players played the deck, and they all cracked the Top 8. Gerry Thompson kept his Gaea’s Blessings and managed a Top 16. If what makes a “good deck” is its sheer domination of a format, then this is the greatest example I can come up with. Even AlphaBetaUnlimited’s R/G Invasion Block creation got trumped by Zvi in the end.

Perhaps, though, it’s not just about finding the one particular deck for a one particular format. Surely, if a team could somehow analyze a metagame so well that each of them could play a different deck employing a different strategy and still Top 8, then clearly they have got to know what they are doing, right? And if one of those players won the entire tournament, positioning himself so well as to not only beat the field but also defeat two of the other players on his team , then he has got to be playing at least functionally the best possible deck at the tournament, doesn’t he?

Welcome to Pro Tour: Houston, 2002. YMG captured first, second, and third at that event, and at the helm of it all was Justin Gary:

4 Treetop Village
4 Yavimaya Coast
4 Polluted Delta
1 Swamp
2 Forest
2 Underground River
7 Island
2 Cognivore
4 Brainstorm
4 Accumulated Knowledge
2 Intuition
3 Fact or Fiction
3 Force Spike
4 Counterspell
2 Forbid
1 Foil
1 Mana Leak
4 Oath of Druids
2 Living Wish
1 Krosan Reclamation
3 Pernicious Deed

I don’t know if Mike chose to overlook the decklists I’ve presented to you, or if the sheer volume of all the decks across Magic history simply necessitated that he’d wind up forgetting a couple. The answer, honestly, doesn’t matter very much. All I aim to prove is that the best deck at a tournament does not earn that status because of the number of copies of the cards it contains. It earns it, well, by being the best deck for the tournament; having the most positive matchups, creating the most opportunities for its pilot to outplay its opponents, achieving the optimum position within the metagame, and maintaining the proper balance between power and consistency. Without a proper understanding of how this works, it’s extremely easy to discount a deck before its time. To do so based on a flawed theory would be a tragedy.

I know that the “theory wars” over the last couple of weeks have caused people to grow weary of the debate altogether, and I don’t want to be construed as simply adding a stream to an already-dense pissing contest. The thing is, though, that this is one of Magic theory’s most fundamental debates: how can you tell what constitutes an optimal deck? Do you simply have to run it through the gauntlet and see how much it wins, or is there another way? Put more broadly, do decks themselves have qualities that somehow allow an observer to infer something meaningful about them that goes beyond the composition of the individual cards and resultant probabilities therein? Are there general principles we can apply universally across all formats that allow us to take some shortcuts in deckbuilding?

The answer to that last question is obviously “yes,” of course, but it’s hard for me to overemphasize the grave danger a deckbuilder puts himself into if he fails to apply those principles correctly. A formerly excellent designer, by blindly adhering to antiquated theories that are both inapplicable given the current state of Magic and not comprehensive enough to account for all the needed variables, could well be erecting unnecessary barriers that prevent him from rising to his true – and former – potential.


* For multi-format tournaments I chose, as his Hall of Fame profile did, to include his Standard decklists.