Cutting Ties

Ari explains why the comfort of familiarity is a hell of a trap in competitive Magic: The Gathering by looking at Constructed and Limited in the long term and short term.

The comfort of familiarity is a hell of a trap. It’s probably one of the biggest reasons I’ve underperformed at Constructed events over the past year or two and might even be one of the reasons I’ve lost at Limited.

Sometimes you’re better off stopping, taking a minute, and starting from scratch.

So this is as much to solidify the concepts in my mind as it is to tell you about it.

Constructed Long Term

You’ve been playing the same deck for a while, but it’s just not quite coming together.

Maybe it’s a Pro Tour Qualifier season and you’ve dropped at 3-2 in the last two PTQs with a deck you thought was testing fine and gave you a Top 8 last month.

Maybe it’s Modern and the deck you Grand Prixed with three months ago just isn’t cutting it anymore.

Maybe it’s Legacy and the deck you’ve been crushing people with for years is suddenly treading water in the metagame.

When a deck’s really bad, it’s easy to tell. You lose a bunch of games, and you flip the Draft commons over to write on the other side.

The problem arises when the issue isn’t so clear cut. The deck performs reasonably, and you know the lines so you win a bit more than you should. But in the end you could be winning more with another choice.

The first and most obvious reason is a metagame shift. People start playing something that beats your deck, and you start losing. When this happens on a large scale, it’s again something that’s easy to see.

There are a few less obvious situations.

The first is the "strictly better" trap. There are times where a deck exists that beats all the relevant things your deck does and then some. Typically this is because the two decks share the same core. It could be a very small tweak, such as Esper Stoneblade moving to Deathblade in Legacy or Jund moving to Souls Jund in Modern. It could be a larger shift within the same shell, like the varying degrees of resilient Burning-Tree Emissary decks right after Gatecrash outclassing the near-red ones. It could even just be the same broad archetype, like Jund at Grand Prix Atlantic City beating the Selesnya decks with Rakdos’s Return and having a shot against the Hexproof decks that beat the Selesnya decks thanks to Liliana of the Veil.

The best way to avoid this pitfall is play more decks. The reason you’d miss a better-performing deck is that you just haven’t tried it.

Obviously event preparation time isn’t infinite, so when you have very similar decks to test and know a lot about one you should create shortcuts. Figure out where the biggest differences are going to come up and focus on those.

For example, one of these questions in Modern right now is whether Junk or Jund or Souls Jund is better. If I were going to try to figure this out, I’d focus on the following. How much does the lack of Lightning Bolt hurt Junk versus Birthing Pod; how much does Lingering Souls define the mirror; and how much does the extra color of mana hurt you against Burn and Affinity (the aggressive decks of the format)?

If this small subset of testing causes you to reconsider, you should probably retest a broader set of matches to confirm you didn’t make an incorrect assumption. Maybe the extra color makes it easier for Splinter Twin to catch you off guard or the extra damage actually counts for something in the mirror. You may also be underestimating how much a "small" change affects the deck, like swapping from Melira to Kiki Pod.

The next trap is failing to realize the level 2 metagame. This is a common trap for Grand Prix and smaller events with top-heavy prizes like PTQs. It’s very possible to have a deck that beats a certain common set of decks, is fine against the rest, and is not the right choice for the event.

In a classic example, if the most common deck is Rock and all you care about is first, you’re best off choosing Scissors. This statement has been repeated a ton of times, but the most recent example of the numbers I know is from Lucas Siow’s blog post about Pro Tour Return to Ravnica and metagaming. Obviously Magic isn’t exactly Rock-Paper-Scissors. There are times where Scissors just doesn’t exist, and there are times where it does exist but the edge isn’t enough for it to matter.

A better analogy might be a predator-prey relationship. A deck performs best in a portion of an event if the decks it beats (prey) are plentiful, but if the "predators" are oversaturated, there isn’t enough "prey" left over for them to reliably succeed. Maybe you can keep up with the new deck in the heads-up matchup, but what it does to the later metagame creates an environment you are poorly prepared for.

The way to avoid this is just exploit it. For another year-old example from Grand Prix Atlantic City Standard, if all of the Supreme Verdict decks are being chased out of the metagame by Cavern of Souls and Thragtusk, it might be time to put Spectral Flight on Geist of Saint Traft and try to dodge. Of course everyone is always trying to next level the metagame, but this kind of focus is what lets you actually do it.

The last way is to fall into the classic Rock trap. Not Rock as in Rock-Paper-Scissors, bur Rock as in the classic B/G Midrange archetype.

See, back in the day (2002-2003), the currently trendy knowledge that "midrange is bad" didn’t really exist. Zvi Mowshowitz had a bit of it with his plan of always doing something broken, but a ton of people just played The Rock. And it wasn’t blatantly atrocious. It actually was solid against everything.

The issue was that it was just solid. Nothing more, nothing less. Other decks had edges in power against the field or just in general.

Being 55% against the world isn’t usually the best way to win an event. Being 70% against the expected field and 30% against things people aren’t playing is better.

Again, just because a deck is favored in testing against everything doesn’t make it the best. Resoundingly favored? Sure. Slight edges that waver on who wins the die roll? Very rarely.

I’ve missed day 2 at two Constructed Grand Prix this season, and a big part of the reason is a mix of these three issues. I find myself playing decks that are even to favored against most everything but aren’t the right deck for the event. The reason is that these are the decks with the most raw power in the format. The decks they demolish are the decks less refined to what actually exists, and in turn those decks are weaker against not just the top-notch threats but often the top-notch answers. The things they convincingly beat are out of the metagame fast (point two). They are fine against everything, but not great (point three). And in the end against the narrower metagame there are decks that are just better positioned than 50/50 (point one).

This illustrates one final point: don’t attach yourself to decks or results. Things change. Not all the information you once knew is relevant.

Each event is its own metagame. Sometimes the difference is small enough that the change from the last event can be straight-up ignored and your time is better of spent doing other things. But it’s always at least worth a small look to see if that’s actually the case.

Constructed Short Term

There’s also a short-term side of the same coin.

It’s the first event of the PTQ season. It’s a Pro Tour. It’s the first SCG Legacy Open after a large set with some obvious winners is released (i.e. Return to Ravnica).

You have a massive number of permutations to examine, and most of them are just bad. In fact, most of them are quite obviously bad. And the time you have to test is not infinite.

That all said, the short term is about why not to abandon decks.

Most importantly, the lesson I’ve learned is that there’s a big difference between a bad deck, a bad shell, and a bad card. Obviously a Chimney Imp shell is going to lead to a bad deck, but the same doesn’t trickle back down.

Looking from the bottom up, I don’t have much on what a good shell is right now. It’s still one of the things I do on feel that I’ll eventually find a way to describe.

Of course that might be part of it. One of the things that defines a lot of good shells is making winning feel easy.

Not to say a lot of bad shells don’t allow for easy wins. The good ones are typically the ones that do that with enough redundancy that you play most games that way or have pieces that just work on their own. The former is Legacy combo. The latter is something like Faeries or Caw-Blade, where not having Bitterblossom or Stoneforge Mystic just meant you had a bunch of real nice ones to battle with.

It’s always easier to see these things in retrospect of course. How do you get to the point where you’re playing one of these truly awesome decks?

The most common trap I’ve found occurs between the card and shell steps. You have a card you think or know is amazing, you put it into a couple shells, and none of them pan out. You determine it doesn’t have a real home, move on with your life, and next thing you know you lose to it in a context you never even considered.

One lesson I’ve learned here is that if a card is just good on its own you need to do less work to build around it for a good deck. This was the mistake I and a lot of other people made with Lingering Souls when it first came out. You can play Intangible Virtue and Sorin, Lord of Innistrad and end up with the best 1/1 flying Spirit tokens of all time. Or you can just play the card. Maybe you Mulch it up and it ties the room together in a Reanimator deck. Maybe it’s just a good card in your control deck.

The issue with the first approach is that it doesn’t spread your ability to win games. Unless there’s a larger fluid set of synergies, you’ll still be winning the games you draw your best card. You’ll be losing the ones you don’t.

There are definitely best cards that need the help. If your best card is Delver of Secrets or Geist of Saint Traft or Lion’s Eye Diamond, it’s different. Those cards are powerful only when surrounded by a full team built around them. Lingering Souls and Deathrite Shaman just work. Sure, you have buddies like Thragtusk and Restoration Angel, but that’s just good cards making each other better.

Know the difference between these two categories.

Limited Short Term

In an individual draft, the last point to abandon ship is a function of how deep the Draft format is.

Some of my bad habits and mid-draft fears are locked in from the old days when packs were much shallower. Getting hooked by the three playables in one color pack was rare, and if you jumped ship, you’d often come up short on 22 playables, let alone the 23 you actually wanted.

I don’t know when the turning point was, but this hasn’t been the case for a while.

Here’s my current rule from Theros Draft, and I’m going to try to do some math to back it up.

I can expect to get between nine and eleven maindeck playables in each pack of Theros. Often it’s the former because of how good some of the sideboard options are. I’d rather have a Glare of Heresy and a Gainsay in my sideboard than an Anvilwrought Raptor and my second Annul.

That puts us at 27-33 total live picks.

Fully abandoning all my colors rarely happens after the first half of pack 1. From the average of 30 live picks, if you completely switch around pick 7 of pack 1, you end up with a razor-thin margin of 24 cards. The most common case of this is when I’ve just picked the best card the first five or six picks, end up all over the place, and then see a clear signal come by pick 6 or 7. In a format like a moderately powerful (but not powered) Cube, where a properly open deck can get twelve or thirteen cards per pack, I’m not afraid to switch on the wheel pack 1. Rakdos Cackler wheels when it was in my Top 4 cards in the pack? Red it is, as I’m expecting almost a full deck’s worth of live picks to come in the next two rounds.

The line for abandoning one of two colors is much later, and part of this is because you typically abandon a color because you’ve seen less of it. If you get ten playables from pack 1, you’re typically abandoning the color you have three or four cards in. Even if that leaves you with six playables, you still have another eighteen to 22 picks to fill seventeen slots.

What about the alternative of sticking with it and bearing with a dry pack 3? It’s actually not always the worst. If the format is actually as deep as I’m saying, the worst-case scenario here is still 23 playables: nine or ten pack 1, nine or ten pack 2, and six or seven pack 3 if you really get cut is still 24-27 cards to build with (no promises if you’re cut on both sides). The reason to abandon ship in Theros has more to do with the way card power levels work in the format and less to do with good there, but I’ll leave that for another week.

My point here is that knowing when to abandon ship in Limited is mostly a matter of format-specific math. Draft experience helps with the numbers, but so does just opening packs and finding the unplayables.

Limited Long Term

When do you give up on an archetype over the course of a Limited format? What about a specific card?

(This section is still under construction. Please come back later in 2014 for additional details.)

Regardless of format, giving up is hard to do. Learn to do it in advance and hopefully it saves you learning from a painful experience.