Constructed Assumptions – Learning, Metagaming, and Winning

Tuesday, November 23rd – Why don’t we question our general assumptions about Magic more frequently? What are some frequent mistakes we make when choosing decks and metagaming? How do people choose decks anyway?

As competitive Magic players, if we’re given the choice between saving a drowning child and starting 6-0 in a PTQ, we’ll choose to save the drowning child. Usually. But when we’re sitting down to read about Magic, we’re interested in learning about how we can win more frequently while improving our game.

Since we’re interested in winning, though, why don’t we explore “unexamined” paths to victory more frequently?
Why don’t we question our general assumptions about Magic more frequently?

These assumptions are less format specific (i.e. they aren’t “Play Jund”) and are more general approaches to the competitive side of the game that we learn through trial and error. In some ways, these lessons may seem tautological, but if we approach them in as nuanced a manner as possible (and I’m not referring to the nuance that you get when your uncle remarries twice), we may just find ourselves winning more frequently.

1) Picking a Deck, and So Can You!

A few weeks ago, I wrote an

about my failed stint as a “Magic Hipster.” I was so excited about devising a “new” deck for Champs that you could’ve shown me a video of the Swedish Bikini Olympics, and I would’ve been excited that the bird flying in the background looked like a Glint Hawk. The desire to invent, at the cost of common sense, is just one mistake that we make when selecting a deck for a tournament, though.

We also frequently, and incorrectly, assume that all of our Magic experiences need to be skill-building.

Because I’m already a
rickety, old grandfather

at heart, let’s address this point with an anecdote and a story.

Once in a while, when I need to laugh at the absurdity of things, I think about the scene in Family Guy when a woman walks into a sperm bank and asks for an applicator that “looks like Jodie Foster’s knuckles” (well… I guess most grandfathers don’t really think about this…).

I find this scenario to be especially amusing right around the time I’m with a group of Magic players preparing for a tournament, because the sentiment is nearly the same. One by one, we walk into our local store or log on to Internet forums, loosen up, spread our legs, and beg for someone to punch us in the “tech.”

So what’s the big deal if we want to scream “Ship it!” across a crowded room and walk away with an excellent decklist?

Many people will tell us that we’re “asking for a fish” instead of “asking to be taught to fish”; they’ll say this with a disapproving tone and the “tsk tsk” finger motion trademarked by mothers everywhere.

Sometimes, though, we just need a fat piece of tilapia to be slapped down on our plate, covered in garlic butter.

I think back to 2006 and the Pro Tour in Charleston, South Carolina. My teammates (CW Colglazier and Dan Khokhar) and I tested for weeks prior to the event and embarked on a grueling twelve-hour drive during which Nick Louzon, a well-known figure in Indiana Magic, came along for the ride. Incidentally, he bought several bagged dill pickles with which to harass nearby travelers (I’ll leave the precise means up to your imagination).


You cannot imagine the smell associated with multiple bags of pickling juice percolating in the South Carolina sun.

When we arrived at the hotel, I simply registered at the tournament site and fell asleep from exhaustion. The next morning, I was handed a B/W Midrange deck that had

in common with the deck I’d been testing – my teammates had gotten the list from a well-known pro (I still have no idea who) while I was asleep and were convinced it was

list to play.

I guess they were right – the list seemed theoretically solid, and I ended up going 6-1 on Day 1 with a deck that I hadn’t even shuffled until the first game of the tournament, losing a single match because I put my control opponent on having Simic Sky Swallower when he actually was running Djinn Illuminatus.

Djinn Illuminatus aside, that piece of fish was pretty delicious.

The debate between “handing a man a fish” (i.e. providing one or more decklists) and “teaching a man to fish” (i.e. providing the thought processes through which a deck is created so that they can be replicated) is nothing new. Realistically, though, it’s based on a false dichotomy.

It’s almost never the case that we have the mutually exclusive options of either (a) getting an excellent decklist or (b) building our skill set as a Magic player.

To continue the metaphor (because it’s lunch time, and fish sounds delicious to me): in a world where people generally are hungry, and fish constitute a primary food source, entering a 7th-grade classroom with an armful of fishing rods and teaching them how to fish is probably fine. Doing the same thing at a soup kitchen during dinnertime may be helpful in the abstract (as in, “thanks? I guess?”), but the more helpful contribution in the second situation would be an armful of fish.

The moral of the story is that we’re busy people, and sometimes it’s okay to ask for and to receive help – including decklists.

Sometimes we’re busy saving small children from wells, and sometimes we have a huge project due the Monday after a PTQ. Many of us are full-time students, others of us have full-time jobs, and some of us have wives/husbands and children! We play Magic – we

at Magic – despite the impositions of “real life” – and we don’t always have the time to playtest for hours. That doesn’t make us bad players, and, more relevantly, that doesn’t make us willfully ignorant players. We playtest when we can, and we develop our skills when we can.

we also are open to good advice when it’s offered.

Magic is a “community game,” despite the competitive aspects, and players often share excellent ideas.

A warning though – I have seen players who really don’t know how to adapt the decks that they play based on their experiences and
observations or who never really “practice” the game outside of tournaments. Many of these players are good, but
because they don’t build their skill sets
when they get the chance,

they improve much more slowly than those who do.

We should be careful not to use our busy lives as a carte blanche to avoid practicing Magic. In general, it

be more useful to test for a tournament, and it’s important always to work at improving.

But don’t ever be ashamed to ask for a fish.

2) So I Metagame, and He Said…

As I rode my unicycle to work today, I found myself wondering:

Do we accidentally prepare for tournaments that already are over instead of those that are coming up?

This section is

about statistics, but I use the word a few times – I know that for some of you the mere mention of numbers is more disturbing than a handshake from a gamer who hasn’t showered in three weeks, and so I’ve brought you a preventive tool to stave off the irrational fear of “statistical dryness.”


In my last article, I used data from two StarCityGames.com Opens and a week’s worth of 4-0 decks from Magic Online (MODO) to talk about the question “What does the field look like?” William Spaniel suggested that I didn’t really address what the field looked like at all, but, rather, that I merely answered the question “what decks are doing well?” Another forum poster, responding to a different author’s SCG Talent Search article, wrote “Looking at only the Top 8 decklists shows you what is making Top 8 of events, but without more complete information about what the competition was, it doesn’t necessarily tell you what’s doing well.”

These criticisms make sense in the abstract. If a deck like Jund composes 50% of all decks being played in a tournament, it might appear in the Top 8 at a rate that isn’t proportional to its power level. Because of this possibility, people frequently argue that examining the “Top X” decks isn’t a good way to prepare for an upcoming tournament.


See, you can tell I’m serious because I used a picture.

We often struggle to apply statistics to Magic because it’s a unique animal – it is the Phelddagrif of analysis, if you will. Rules that commonly apply outside of its purview (such as “a hippopotamus cannot fly”) may not apply in its particular case.

In traditional statistics, we sample a portion of the total “population” (i.e. all of the decks at a given tournament) for the purpose of understanding something about the tournament as a whole without going through the Herculean effort of reading and analyzing every decklist. Even examining

deck in a tournament and how those decks fared against one another only tells us about
that tournament.

It may also tell us about which decks are “better” and “worse” (again, for that tournament), but it doesn’t account for “difficult-to-measure” variables like play skill.

In order to predict what decks will be played, it’s less important to analyze entire sets of decks from tournaments and more important to understand
how decks are chosen


When we prepare for a tournament, we typically select a deck in one of two ways.

a)    We obtain a decklist from a trusted source.

b)   We construct a gauntlet of the decks that recently have performed well and test them against each other, selecting a list that seems to be doing well based on our experiences.

Neither of these options really has a lot to do with statistics, and both of them also allow us to make personal choices based on the kind of decks that we like to play. For example, I’m never going to start testing for a Constructed tournament with Red Deck Wins, because I prefer to play control-based archetypes.

If this is the case, having “complete information” about tournaments

very important, and, if we have information from multiple tournaments, both offline and online, having information about

decks (i.e. those that were 2-2 or worse on MODO or those that weren’t in the Top 16 at SCG Opens) may actually

our understanding
because our opponents probably aren’t testing with decks that didn’t do well in other tournaments – they’re testing the decks that succeeded.

We should acknowledge that a “bad” deck might force its way into the Top 8 because it’s cheap, and a lot of people play it (something like White Weenie/Quest), but this rarely happens both longitudinally and consistently, so it’s easy to correct for these outliers by examining multiple tournaments, or simply by playing with the deck a few times.

As an example of how this understanding can be useful, let’s examine Chris Andersen 2nd-place decklist from the recent $5K Kentucky Open,
and, in particular, the thought processes with which we might transition from
Dan Jordan R/U/G list
from the SCG Open in Boston to Chris’s list from the Kentucky Open.

This list attacks other winning decks. The previous two SCG Opens (before the Kentucky Open) were won by the same deck: an R/U/G Ramp deck, similar to this one, but emphasizing Frost Titan, which does a magnificent job of shutting down Primeval Titan, troublesome lands and artifacts, and opposing Frost Titans. Multiple other slots also were occupied by this archetype.

In redesigning this list, Chris probably didn’t ask, “How can I get another 10% edge in the Kuldotha Red matchup?”

He probably asked, “How can I win more frequently against Frost Titan and Jace?” After all, these are the cards that have been winning.

Let’s pretend we’re still testing with a
“stock” version of R/U/G Ramp.

If we’re already playing a deck with Jace, the Mind Sculptor and Frost Titan, and these two cards appear in reasonably high quantities in recent “Top X” reports from tournaments, we need to

a component to our deck that works to neutralize our opponents’ most powerful threats.

We still have numerous ways to gain card advantage, acceleration, and library manipulation between Oracle of Mul Daya, Preordain, Lotus Cobra, Halimar Depths, and Jace, the Mind Sculptor. We don’t really want to cut those cards.

On the other hand, we have Goblin Ruinblaster in our list, which is a pretty strong card against the ramp decks that were popular around Champs (both Eldrazi Green and Valakut Ramp), but is only decent against R/U/G decks. We could cut that, but with what could we replace it?

What if we play Avenger of Zendikar?

Sure, it’s not optimal against Doom Blade, but neither is Frost Titan. The Plant tokens can block opposing Frost Titans all day, and if the Avenger is unanswered (especially likely against an R/U/G list that only can Mana Leak it, double Lightning Bolt it, or bounce it with Jace, the Mind Sculptor), it quickly takes control of the game.

Granted – we’re estimating someone’s thought processes. Adding Avenger of Zendikar might seem obvious in retrospect.

However, theoretically conceiving how a winning deck of “the past” transforms into a winning deck of “the present” can teach us something.

Tautologically, a deck cannot be everything. As Magic players – competitors – we want to win tournaments, and so we tend to adopt strategies on a tournament-by-tournament basis that seem to be succeeding. For this reason, for example, Goblin Ruinblaster probably wasn’t an optimal card in R/U/G Ramp at the Kentucky Open. As people begin adopting the next winning strategy, those of us who succeed will be those of us who anticipate what the metagame

look like, and not how it currently appears.

If you anticipate what people

play instead of focusing on what they

are playing, you tremendously will increase your potential for tournament success.

The way in which this is done most frequently is to adopt a winning decklist, as Chris did, and modify several of the components to be more proactive against the other decks (or even the same basic archetype).

3) A Brief Bonus Decklist

Recently, I’ve been toying with B/r Vampires on MODO. In my first round of a Standard Daily event, though, I ran into a deck that I found far more intriguing – a U/G/W deck that abuses Mimic Vat and “enters the battlefield” abilities. Another player recently posted a 4-0 finish with a version of this deck, which seems like a mix between the U/G Fauna Shaman decks and the theoretical orientation of the Reveillark decks of old. This seems to be a legitimate addition to the metagame and may be worth our scrutiny.

I haven’t had a lot of time to tinker with this deck yet, since it was posted mere hours before the submission deadline, but a few matches’ worth of experience suggest that this is an archetype that’s going places.

This deck has a number of cards that forestall the early attacks by aggressive decks like Boros and (if you’re playing online) Vampires – Nest Invader, in particular, enables the particularly annoying turn 3 Obstinate Baloth while providing a second blocker in a pinch. Obviously, every card except Birds of Paradise makes for an excellent Venser or Mimic Vat target, and you generally come out on top of an exchange with Day of Judgment (if you have Mimic Vat in play).

Unlike the visibly similar Fauna Shaman deck, this build doesn’t fall apart to decks that are able to remove a Fauna Shaman and a Lotus Cobra (or a similar combination of utility and accelerant cards) in the first several turns and move unimpeded into a coherent plan of attack (i.e. aggressive creatures, Jace, Frost Titan, etc.).

It appears as though control decks, especially U/B Control (with opposing Mimic Vat) might be a difficult matchup, and the “mill” sideboard seems to be designed to defeat opposing control decks, but I’m as of yet unsure as to the extent to which Archive Trap and Hedron Crab out of the sideboard are the optimal solutions to the most frequently played control archetypes.

More positively, this deck has performed very well in the few matches I’ve played against R/U/G and B/U/G decks similar to those that took the
top two slots at the Kentucky Open.

Day of Judgment and Mimic Vat are very powerful tools with which to defeat cards like Avenger of Zendikar and Frost Titan, although Creeping Tar Pit out of the B/U/G version occasionally is problematic.

I’m not ready to say that the Venser/Mimic Vat control archetype is able to compete with Jace on a larger scale, but with some tweaking, this deck may just play Brutus to Jace’s Caesar. Or, of course, it might just add Jace, the Mind Sculptor – just like every other blue deck, and play the role of Octavius instead.


For those of you who didn’t play during Ravnica Block, there was a popular control deck that used Simic Sky Swallower as its primary win condition, largely because a 6/6 flying, trampling, shrouded creature is hard to answer in a format mostly bereft of board sweepers. My opponent’s deck seemed to be this control deck, and so I falsely assumed that his win condition would be Simic Sky Swallower. When he played a Carven Caryatid on turn 3, I used my Mortify on it, because I wanted to clear the way for my Dark Confidant to get in early damage, assuming that the Mortify wouldn’t actually be useful later because his win condition had shroud. Whoops!


Well, to be more precise, they apply, but the results need to be interpreted differently.


I should add, of course, that it helps that Chris is an excellent Magic player.