Chatter of the Squirrel – Deck Evolution

Read Zac Hill every week... at StarCityGames.com!
Wednesday, June 11th – I’ve spent a lot of time over the last few weeks thinking how decks evolve – how the finished product we see posted online in a Top 8 somewhere looked when it was fresh out of its creator’s brain. Particularly right now, in a new Block PTQ format that has been largely unexplored, it can be extremely useful to see the avenues through which the game’s masterminds chose to perfect their lists…

I’ve spent a lot of time over the last few weeks thinking how decks evolve – how the finished product we see posted online in a Top 8 somewhere looked when it was fresh out of its creator’s brain. Particularly right now, in a new Block PTQ format that has been largely unexplored, it can be extremely useful to see the avenues through which the game’s masterminds chose to perfect their lists, the creative means they employed to solve the problems that arose over the course their testing.

The reason I’ve been so focused on this is partially because Adrian Sullivan and I have engaged in a series of conversations recently about the importance of theory versus empiricism, and how different minds within the game react to playtesting results based on the degree to which they are either theoretically or empirically inclined. This led to an understanding that one of my theories – a system of design I’d hardly ever thought about consciously, yet one that has rested at the core of nearly every deck I’ve ever constructed – is fundamentally flawed.

It’s closely related to the theory that every deck needs to have an over-arching “theme,” or “plan,” and that every card in the deck needs to contribute to the realization of that plan. I still believe that, of course. The difference is that now, I’m far more aware that very, very small changes to the overall composition of a decklist can alter that plan significantly, and so it’s important to pay attention to the point in which a deck really wants to “shift” and try to accomplish something else.

In retrospect, it’s surprising I didn’t see this sooner. It’s as simple, really, in shedding the obsession with “linear” strategies when a whole new avenue of attack can be opened at minimal cost (similar to boarding in Quirion Dryads in Sadin’s Columbus deck or Solifuges in Osyp’s Honolulu list). The difference is that such a change doesn’t always necessarily arise through sideboarding.

I remember that prior to Pro Tour: Kuala Lumpur, Brandon Scheel and I were among the very few players to seriously respect Merfolk as a strategy during Lorwyn/Lorwyn/Morningtide draft. The conventional wisdom said that you lost an entire pack of Silvergill Dousers, Summon the Schools, Judges of Currents, and the like, and picked up very little out of Morningtide in return. I was always puzzled by this because I was perfectly content to take extremely high-value flyers (Dewdrop Spy and especially Fencer Clique), get over the fact that they weren’t Merfolk – aww! – and smash in the air with my impromptu Faerie airforce. If only I had realized the implications of this “compromise” sooner! Sometimes, even though a card may not mesh with what the rest of my deck is trying to do initially, it by its very presence can change my deck’s strategy all by itself and contribute more to the deck’s overall gameplan if I take it into consideration. My early Merfolk decks, for example, typically tried to maximize their Silvergill Dousers and Judges and defensive creatures and eventually win either through a couple of Islandwalk guys and an Aquitects (or alternatively through his Will), or through milling. It turned out, though, that what worked even better was just to circumvent all that planning and stall the ground long enough to race in the air with flying Hill Giants that never died. Fancy that!

The moral of the story is this: the implementation of a new plan contributed more value than the maximization of the old one. Or, more simply: it’s possible to make the best even better.

With that in mind, I want to show you the first iteration of Marijn Lybaert Pro Tour: Hollywood Top 8 deck (designed principally by Stan van der Velden, Christophe Gregoir, and Jan Doise). It’s pretty hard to recognize!

4 Firespout
4 Mwonvuli Acid Moss
2 Woodfall Primus
4 Harmonize
3 Icy Manipulator
4 Mind Stone
3 Cloudthresher
3 Primal Command
1 Deus of Calamity
3 Creeping Mold
4 Wall of Roots
3 Into the North
3 Mouth of Ronom
3 Fire-lit Thicket
1 Sapseep Forest
9 Snow-covered Forest
3 Treetop Village
3 Highland Weald

1 Cloudthresher
4 Squall Line
1 Creeping Mold
4 Kitchen Finks
3 Vexing Shusher
2 Boom/Bust

Some things are just obviously wrong no matter what – 3 Village and 3 Thicket? – but we corrected those basically right off the bat (and I use “we” very loosely…I had very little to do with the development of this particular list). Still, the differences between this and Marijn’s eventual Top 8 creation abound, and I want to talk about the direction that Marijn chose to take the deck versus what I was trying to do with it.

First thing is first, though, and it needs pointing out. Marijn’s one of very, very few people to boast two Top 8s across the last two calendar years – Geneva and Hollywood, with an effective Top 8 in Yokohama at the helm of the best Red Deck there – placing him in the company of such luminaries as Guilliame Wafo-Tapa. You’ll notice something in common with the players at this high a level, and that’s the willingness to consider certain cards, manabases, and numbers that many lesser players write off as “bad” right away. Just look at Quick n’ Toast for a manabase that, classically, feels completely impossible. Similarly, although Marijn is more than willing to take a jab at pet-peeve cards of his – he hates the singleton Kher Keep that finds its way into every one of my Red lists, and has given Sullivan plenty of hell over his Orcish Librarians – when it comes down to it he’s never one to derisively dismiss a card during serious testing “just because it’s bad.” Woodfall Primus? Creeping Mold? Icy Manipulator?! While these “bad” cards eventually found themselves on the cutting room floor, I can assure you that it didn’t happen immediately (and I have the emails to prove it: “Icy’s actually really good.” -MTB*). Because he was willing to at least consider those cards in the first place, he was willing to try out a deck that would eventually take him to a Top 8. It’s been my experience with several other playtesting groups, particularly with some Americans, that this type of idea is nipped in the bud before it has a chance to be properly explored. This can prove destructive and ultimately counterproductive, because it’s impossible to evolve every deck to its full potential.

With that out of the way, let’s talk about the deck. It started out, as you can see, as a mono-Green mana control deck in the style of those Stunted Growth/Plow Under creations from years long past. Sporting no fewer than sixteen Land Destruction (or land control, to be fair) spells, it aimed to capitalize on the mana-hungry nature of the format’s Faerie and Reveillark (which dominated at the time) decks, eventually sealing the deal with a single huge threat. Against the generic aggressive decks like Elves, Firespout and Command would combine with Walls and Icies to neutralize basically everything (the theory went) until the tremendous size of the Deus and the Primuses could dominate the board by themselves.

My problem was that I said, “okay,” and set about trying to make the best Green land control deck possible. I quickly dropped a mana acceleration spell for a fourth Primal Command, realized that Skreds would help deal with early threats, added some Avalanche Riders with the addition of Red, and had an altogether-very-satisfying Angry Hermit-esque midrange machine. Quickly, though, as the Faerie decks popularized Rune Snag, Reveillark declined, and fast Red decks sprung up to capitalize on the fae’s popularity, I dismissed this deck strategically and tried to move on to greener, Giantbaitlier pastures.

The Belgian crew, though, wasn’t crippled by being so thoroughly married to the theme of the deck.

Look what they did. The mana control elements dissolved, as match after match of playtesting revealed they were less and less necessary. First came the Finks, as a two-of, which quickly upped itself to four after Deus proved cumbersome and the early-game acceleration count was reduced to ten. They also realized the importance of Skred, cut down to one Mouth, and went back up to three again once it proved its mettle against Clique. To accommodate these changes, Icy and Primus bit the dust, and Grim Poppet swapped itself in as the seven-mana Big Man of choice.

The last and most significant change, though, was the substitution of Mwonvuli Acid-Moss for Chameleon Colossus, a change that didn’t take place up until we all arrived in Hollywood. Initially, I (and I believe Jan) were opposed. “Why do we need this random dork in a control deck?” I believe I said at least once. What I didn’t comprehend was that, with Colossus swapped out for Moss, we were no longer a control deck at all. We had some mild turn-3 beatdown in the form of Finks and Colossus – threats that were substantial enough by themselves that we didn’t have to walk into Wrath. Around turn 4 and 5 we could cast Cloudthresher, after the first wave had been dealt with, and refuel with Command and Harmonize to seal the deal. It was, in a very roundabout way, almost an aggro-control deck: it dropped a clock, and then dealt with threats on a one-for-one basis until the opponent was dead. It had elements of midrange, too – big Green creatures, mild disruption – but the introduction of Colossus made establishing a clock extremely important.

I think StanV – really, a true Constructed giant in his own right – brainstormed most of these changes. What I learned from him was really the next level of open-mindedness: not only should you consider all the cards that are most suitable for your deck, but also all of the strategies.

A similar trend, honestly, can be seen from another genius, Stuart Wright. Here was the first version of his R/B tokens deck, which as you can see changed very little from his final list in the scope of things. (I’m keeping the format in its original form because it’s interesting to me how Stuart arranges his lists.)

3 Grave Pact
3 Mogg Fanatic
4 Mountain
3 Nantuko Husk
4 Sulfurous Springs
6 Swamp
4 Auntie’s Hovel
3 Graven Cairns
4 Greater Gargadon
1 Kher Keep
4 Knucklebone Witch
4 Mad Auntie
4 Marsh Flitter
4 Mogg War Marshal
2 Urborg, Tomb of Yawgmoth
4 Bitterblossom
3 Furystoke Giant

At the time, we were working on numerous R/B decks. As Stuart puts it:

“I’m a bit surprised that no one has mentioned the Giant, as he is perfect for this deck and so good at just killing people.”

The rest, as they say, is history. But looked what changed about this deck, apart from the manabase: Goodbye Knucklebone Witch and Mad Auntie and Grave Pact, hello Shadow Guildmage, Magus of the Moon, and Nameless Inversion. I was always referring to this list as “the Goblin deck,” yet what put the deck over the top was the subtraction of eight Goblins for the backbreaking Magus of the Moon and the format-dominating Shadow Guildmage (who, to be fair, was an innovation that came from several different directions). Does Magus have anything to do, in the scope of things, with the rest of the entire deck? Other than being a random duder, not really. But he allowed the deck to present a must-counter threat early on in the game that would enable the Battle of Wits-like Furystoke Giant to end it right away a turn or so later. For very little cost, the deck earned itself a ton of free wins.

This isn’t an extension of the eternal power/synergy debate. All of these additions have “synergy,” in that they do what the deck is legitimately trying to do. But it’s a type of synergy that demands a designer to look beyond the obvious, to expand the constraints he’s artificially placing on his archetype and delve into something more adventurous, more risky, an entirely new avenue of possibility. When you do that, you Top 8 Pro Tours.

Hopefully, I can start making my way that direction.


* Marvin the Bear, obviously.