I have two rules for listening to advice. The first is to consider advice from as many thoughtful people as I can. The second is to take every piece of advice I hear with a grain of salt.
Gerry Thompson is among the Magicians whose opinions I respect most, and hearing him back up Patrick Chapin – who easily fits the same description – on the subject of playing decks that convert pilot skill into superior results made me revisit the subject for the soon-to-be-updated PTQ format. Allow me to elaborate.
In this past Extended season, I was a firm advocate of Dredge. The combo deck usually won during one of the first few turns of the game, and – in my experience, certainly – outlasted most of the sideboard hate packages that were aimed at it.
Patrick’s reason for advocating his Next Level Blue deck over Dredge was simple: when you play Dredge, you have almost no ability to craft losing positions for your opponent. Your wins come when you succeed at “not piloting the deck ineptly,” but it’s nearly impossible for you to set a trap for your opponent that can steal a game you were bound to lose otherwise.
Admittedly, it’s hard to set a trap for the opponent when he can see everything coming. Dredge is the poster boy for decks that cannot set traps; generally speaking, the opponent always knew exactly what was in your hand (some combination of Golgari Grave-Trolls, Stinkweed Imps, and Golgari Thugs that you’d Dredged up), and could theoretically work out each of your impending plays simply by looking through your graveyard.
The trouble I had with Patrick’s philosophy was… well, the testing. I have always tested with as many “take-backs” as possible, so that I can learn how the matchup will play out if both players know what plays to make. After all, I can expect no less in the single elimination rounds of a PTQ, and who wants to shoot for a finals elimination, a box of boosters, and a pat on the back?
The testing always showed me winning more with Dredge against the field, as long as take-backs were taken into account, so it was difficult to justify playing Next Level Blue instead. Really, how do I value “I win more with Next Level Blue if my opponent screws up somewhere” against “I win more with Dredge if both players are playing well?”
Gerry put a really interesting perspective on this in his most recent article, talking about Lorwyn Block.
Guess what… you can’t realistically expect to win the tournament with a Green creature deck against good players. Like Patrick Chapin, you must take risks. You can either finish in the Top 64 of every tournament attacking with creatures, or you can play a more powerful strategy and win roughly one tournament per year. And one tournament win pays far more than a bunch of Top 64s.
Not only that, but how much can you really outplay your opponents when all you’ve got are Tarmogoyfs, Wren’s Run Vanquishers, and Chameleon Colossi? Those creatures do the same thing extremely well: attack and block. But, they don’t allow for a whole lot of maneuvering or give you any options. You cast them and attack or block until one of you dies.
To dig a little deeper, let’s look at mirror matches. It’s old news that matchups are more of a range of likely outcomes than a simple percentage that always applies. If I find my anti-Faeries deck winning 70% of games against my test partner running Faeries, I’m probably not going to do as well when Paulo Vitor sits down across from me. I’ll probably do better than 70%, however, when Faeries is piloted by a casual player who has just picked up the deck for the first time. Likewise, depending on my opponent’s particular card choices and adjustments to the list I’ve been testing against, my win rate over a series of games and matches will fluctuate. Maybe I’m 85% against the new kid playing a Faeries list that is not very good against my anti-Faeries deck, and at the opposite end of the spectrum, I’m 50% against Paulo Vitor playing a version of Faeries tuned to resist hate.
When two simple decks clash, though, the spectrum of potential win rates gets smaller. I tested the Mystical Teachings mirror match a lot last year for Time Spiral Block, and yet probably would have won maybe 30% of games I played against Gerry Thompson piloting the same list as I. On the other hand, I was confident enough about my preparation for that matchup that I might well have (presumptuously, for the sake of the example) put myself as about the favorite to win around 85% of the mirror games I played against PTQ players I didn’t recognize that season.
Theoretically if I played half Gerry Thompson and half unknowns at every PTQ, I would have an average win rate in the mirror of 58%, but given the small proportion of all PTQ players whose names I know, let’s go with closer to a 65% average win rate instead. So maybe I boldly claim “yeah, I win 65% of my Teachings mirrors,” and maybe it’s true – but even if it is, that’s not the whole story.
There are 55 percentage points in play between the 30 against Gerry and the 85 against unknown PTQ players. I actually have a really good chance of working through a Top 8 of unknowns piloting Teachings, and a really terrible shot of defeating three Gerry Thompson on my way to the Blue Envelope.
Compare that to a simpler matchup, like the Kithkin mirror. I might also say that I win 65% of my Kithkin mirrors because I have a build tuned to beat the mirror, but what does the spread look like? Against Gerry Thompson I might be 50%, and against the new kid on the block I might be 70%.
So, let’s keep the numbers the same but pretend Teachings is Quick n’ Toast to make it a bit more vivid for the current PTQ season. Then let’s compare.
â€¢ I have a 61% chance of winning the PTQ when the Top 8 is filled with unknowns playing Quick n’ Toast, when I am playing Quick n’ Toast tuned to beat the mirror.
â€¢ I have a 34% chance of winning the PTQ when the Top 8 is filled with unknowns playing Kithkin, when I am playing Kithkin tuned to beat the mirror.
â€¢ I have a 13% chance of winning the PTQ when the Top 8 is filled with Gerry Thompson playing hate-resistant Kithkin, when I am playing Kithkin tuned to beat the mirror.
â€¢ I have a 3% chance of winning the PTQ when the Top 8 is filled with Gerry Thompson playing hate-resistant Quick n’ Toast, when I am playing Quick n’ Toast tuned to beat the mirror.
If I play QnT (and happen to encounter the mirror all three times in the Top 8), my chances depend mostly on whether I am a better player than my opponents. If they’re unknowns, then great! I have a 61% chance of taking home the Blue Envelope, thanks to my three consecutive 85% matchups. Naturally, the converse is also true; since skill carries more weight in this matchup, if I encounter three players who are far better than I, my chances plummet to 3%.
If I’m with Kithkin, on the other hand, I have a much better shot against the superior player (13% compared to 3%), but – and here’s where we get to Gerry’s point – my best chance of winning the PTQ is 34%. With QnT, I am literally the favorite to win the PTQ when I walk into a Top 8 full of mirror matches, and I am the best player of the group. With Kithkin, even under the same “ideal” scenario where it’s all mirrors I am tuned to beat and am the superior player, I still have just over a one-third chance of actually winning.
An astute reader (hell, a living, breathing reader) may notice that this is an oversimplification. I made up the numbers and deliberately provided only mirror-match scenarios and “best-case, worst-case” Top 8 paths, with very little respect to gains due to technology, a deck’s chances of beating the variety of adversaries it will face in a tournament, and so on. You will never encounter any of the above scenarios exactly as I described them – not the least of which is because Gerry Thompson does not have two clones (that I am aware of) – but fortunately, if you zoom out a bit, you can see that the underlying logic is pretty simple:
1) Play a quality deck whose matchups grant more wins to the more skilled player.
2) Pair only against players who are less skilled than you are.
3) You have just increased your chances of winning the tournament over a deck of similar quality which does not reward skillful play.
If you say to yourself “I have no control over #2,” you’re only partially right. Sure, you can’t do anything about the printout reading “Tsumura, Kenji” next to your table number, but you can always, y’know, practice if you want to increase the chances that you pair against players who are less adept at Magic than you are.
To simplify this concept even further, down to a single sentence, I give you: The Thesis.
A deck that goes 70-30 against every opponent is not as good as one that goes 80-20 against inferior players and 20-80 against superior players when you are the best player in the room.
Was that ever rocket science or what?
Seriously, though, read that carefully. When you play a deck that engineers matchups in which skill is a big factor, things only turn out in your favor if you actually make sure you are among the best players in the room. If you don’t know how to use the tools your deck provides you to set traps, or if you fumble the trap-setting (i.e. punt an attempted bluff), you’re not really boosting your chances by seeking more interactive matchups.
Likewise, it only makes sense to run the more complicated deck when that deck actually performs better against inferior players than the alternative decks. If I had been beating everyone 70% of the time with Dredge and beating inferior players only 65% of the time with Next Level Blue, my chances would have still been better with Dredge – even though my opponents would have seen every single play coming. The most complicated deck is not automatically the choice with the highest expected value for you.
In fact, there’s often a balance between the deck’s underlying power and its complexity to play against. You could throw in a lot of low-power stumpers to make your deck harder to play against, yet worse overall… but I wouldn’t recommend it. As a designer, if I am to capitalize on this, my goal seems to be finding a deck that is both strong in the metagame and which will let me set traps for my opponents.
This brings me to Blue cards.
Besides the fact that it has been the most powerful color in roughly the past 254,321 blocks (give or take Onslaught), Blue typically brings the most value to the table in terms of creating opportunities to outplay the opponent.
Consider one of Blue’s simplest, and most common interactions: the threat of a counterspell. I have two Islands untapped, and you are holding your best threat and your second-best threat. Which do you cast? Like zombies, opportunities to outplay the opponent burst from the ground. Am I holding the counter? You can’t be certain. My eyes say I have it… but am I bluffing? Am I walking you into a trap? The dance begins, and the loser will watch precious percentage points slip into the “chances of losing this game” column. By coming out on top in the exchange, I gain free headway in the matchup just by playing cards that allowed me to trap my opponent into doing something dumb.
Compare that to the most common action in a creature-based deck: attacking. Since there are no combat tricks (okay, unless you’re playing against the Barkshell Blessing deck), most Green creature mirrors make you feel like suddenly like you’re playing against Dredge. All the information is on the table for you. If the opponent has a 3/3 and you have two 3/3s, you can pretty much safely attack without worrying that anything bad will happen. Hell, even if you’re too oblivious to even consider the opponent’s hand at all, and walk right into whatever tricks he might be holding, you’re fine – because chances are, he’s simply not holding any. The tricks in the format include Mirrorweave, Barkshell Blessing, and instant-speed removal, and I have yet to see the Green creature deck that sports more than one of these. Quite a bit of the time you can forget that the opponent might have a trick altogether and be none the worse for it.
So how do you get the edge? Sure, you might have a better list, but what if he drew more dudes than you? How do you turn that situation around? How do you set a trap for him to pull a victory out of the jaws of defeat? Most of the time, you can’t – you don’t have the tools to. You just have to hope your matchup or draw is better than the other guy’s.
Remember Shuhei in the Top 8 of PT: Hollywood? In one game his G/B Elves were ahead of Merfolk pretty much the entire game. Then all of a sudden, Ruess goes “Cryptic Command, attack, Cryptic Command, attack,” and Shuhei is dead. Now Shuhei’s not stupid; I’m sure he considered the possibility that Ruess had two Cryptic Commands… but will your PTQ opponent?
Say you’re up against a Green creature deck, playing a Merfolk deck. Your opponent has drawn better than you have, and is flooding the board with Elf tokens. You have three 2/2 non-evasive beaters, and the opponent is at 18. The situation looks dire, except for the two Cryptic Commands in your hand. Suddenly, the opponent plays Garruk, and your time is up. You have to set a trap for this guy, or else you’re dead next turn. You launch your three 2/2s into the red zone, aiming for… the opponent’s dome, not Garruk. Just after you do it, you run the forehead-smack and go “Oh God, I could have just attacked Garruk, couldn’t I?” The opponent tallies up his damage, realizes it’s lethal, sees no value in blocking when he’s at 18, and just takes six. Next turn you Cryptic Command him and attack for six. Turn after, you Cryptic Command him again and attack for another six. As if by Magic, you’ve stolen a victory because your opponent didn’t respect the chance that you had double Cryptic Command.
Now pretend you’re the simple creature deck against Merfolk. Not only can you not use tricksy cards like Cryptic Command to steal games, now you have to worry about your opponent blowing you out with them. Even if you’ve flooded the board with tokens, and are about to win with Garruk, your opponent’s attack has to give you pause; what if he’s got the double Cryptic Command? Do I need to maybe block one of those guys, just to be safe?
Cryptic Command is the perfect example of a card that punishes the opponent for playing poorly. It has so many potential blowouts up its sleeve, some players forget to account for them all – and as the holder of the Cryptic Command, you are free to punish them for it. If they forget to play around the tap-â€˜em-all mode, or don’t realize that playing a threat before combat could get it countered and their only attacker bounced… they take a hit. Next turn, maybe you convince them you have a counter when you don’t, they play the worse creature, and they take another hit. Pretty soon the hits add up, and the best draw in the world can’t save them.
Look at Sower of Temptation in Quick n’ Toast. Play a Kitchen Finks and refuse to block with it until the opponent finds that fourth land and plays Chameleon Colossus. Block the Colossus once and watch him burn Nameless Inversion to take out the resulting 2/1 so he can hit you for eight. Then play the Sower of Temptation, and watch him nervously glance at the Inversion in his graveyard, wondering if he can summon forth another from his deck using sheer willpower.
The list goes on. You can be holding straight lands, and the mere fact that there are copies of Broken Ambitions in your deck lets you convert just the right twitch of the eye into the opponent playing the worse creature first as counter-bait for a counter you don’t even have. Sometimes, that’s all it takes for you to get back in the game. Chameleon Colossus is a great guy and all, but even he can’t let you set a game-winning trap unless you at least draw him.
So when I tell you that I’m going to be switching from my usual paradigm once Eventide becomes legal, and pursue a deliberately Blue strategy from the get-go, this is what I’m talking about. Sure, some Blue cards are powerful, and I’ll happily play them for those reasons, but there’s nothing tricky about a Mulldrifter. I’m looking for the Blue cards and strategies that will let me set traps and steal games. I’m going to try things GerryT/PChapin style this time around, and see how my deckbuilding methodology fares when I apply it to a strategy designed to maximize my chances against less skilled opponents, as opposed to my chances against an opponent with “infinite takebacks.”
Granted, I won’t necessarily ever bring the deck to a tournament where I’m the best player in the room, but that doesn’t mean I can’t win with it. For this strategy to work, theoretically I just need to avoid pairing against someone who is better than I am; as long as there aren’t too many people in the room who fit that bill, my chances are reasonable that they will get knocked out before I do. After all, 100% of my Pro Tour Qualifications have come when I was playing tricksy Blue cards. (Ah, Fact or Fiction.) I’m interested to see if I can up the number of Blue Envelopes this season without changing that fact.
See you next week!