Feature Article — Brave New World

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In the past, Constructed formats have been easy to define. Their metagames revolve around finding and tweaking the best deck, or simply positioning yourself to take advantage of a three-pronged rock/paper/scissors affair. With the policy of pushing Tier 2 cards and strategies, R&D have helped create a metagame packed with interesting choices and diverse decks. So what do you do at the eleventh hour, as the registration clock slowly ticks to zero? Dan reveals all…

I’ve always felt sorry for people who have to try to work out which deck to play for each different tournament. I see them in agony the night before a tournament, scribbling out cards on their registration forms before the start, lamenting how they shouldn’t have switched decks the night before (after making a mistake). What is particularly mean is that Wizards of the Coast R&D have deliberately increased this misery and changed the goalposts.

Back in the day, most Constructed formats were like giant logic puzzles, and tended to resolve into one of two models. Either there would be one “best deck” – High Tide, Affinity, Necropotence, Tinker – or there would be a rock/paper/scissors format, with three popular decks, each of which beat one of the other popular decks, and lost to another.

In either of these formats, there would still be plenty for deckbuilders to do. If there was one best deck, then the choice was between playing it and tweaking it to get an advantage in the mirror match, and playing a deck that had an advantage against the best deck without sacrificing too much in other matchups. In a rock/paper/scissors format, plans included hoping to dodge the bad matchup of the three (hence the success of Jamie Wakefield “Secret Force” deck), or find a deck that beat all three of the popular decks. Or you could do what I did, and just play a Red Deck regardless.

Most advice about choosing decks and evaluating metagames was developed during this period, and is based on this frame of reference. But in fact, formats where everyone knows the best deck, or where there are three popular decks and no new decks can compete with all of them, are quite boring to play and test. And as players got better at finding the best deck, and were able to do so quicker, Something Had To Be Done.

(I should note that some people really like predictable Constructed formats as above, with clear best decks, and find that continual change reduces their enjoyment. Personally, I find the increased change and unpredectability one of the best things that has happened to Constructed Magic, but much of what follows also applies to formats where this is less the case, though to a lesser extent.)

If there was a “best deck” in Ravnica Block Constructed, there was certainly no consensus about what it was. If there is a “best deck” in Time Spiral Block Constructed, it is hardly dominating the qualifiers. It is unprecedented to have a Grand Prix coming up after six weeks of qualifiers and not to have any consensus about what, say, the top three decks will be in terms of numbers and results. Similarly in Standard at the moment, there are at least five different decks that could reasonably claim to be the best, according to Frank Karsten, and still plenty of potential for new decks to be discovered in what is still a relatively new and unexplored format.

Time Spiral Block Constructed is a particularly interesting example of what happens when there are lots of powerful cards and strategies available, but none that are completely overpowered. A month ago, it seemed like the Mystical Teachings control deck was the “best deck.” This inspired the rise of a range of decks, from Poison Slivers to various kinds of Blue tempo decks, which have in turn helped to revive the decks which have a good matchup against these, but are perhaps weaker against White/Green or Teachings decks. Compare this to, say, Odyssey or Onslaught Block, where Madness and Black Control decks, and Goblin and Slide decks respectively, made up the majority of decks at each and every tournament.

So what to do in this Brave New World, where the most popular decks change from week to week, and knowledge which is vitally important one week – like how to get an edge in the Teachings mirror match – is less important the next week than, say, how to deal with a Virulent Sliver. Here are four possible plans, with the different advantages and disadvantages for each:

1. Stick with the conventional wisdom, and get lucky.

In an otherwise excellent article on sideboarding (though marred by using percentages to describe matchups), Mike Flores wrote that “you can’t win a PTQ with a 60% matchup against Ravager. You’re just going to go 4-2 and miss Top 8.” This is an easy assertion to disprove. Most people who played Ravager Affinity had, by definition, a 50% matchup against other Ravager decks. According to Mike’s argument, therefore, none of them should have even made Top 8, let alone qualified for the Pro Tour. Yet this didn’t happen.

Most tournaments aren’t won by the innovative clever new deck, but by one of the people playing one of the most popular decks. Rather than trying to innovate, it is a perfectly reasonable strategy just to play the deck that won last week. People get scared to do this, because they fear that everyone else will be prepared for them, and out of a natural desire to try something new rather than just copy someone else.

There are all sorts of ways of failing to win tournaments. Two of the most popular are playing decks which have flaws that you only discover during a tournament, and playing decks of which you don’t quite understand how to maximize the potential. The risk of losing in these ways is much higher if you bring a new deck than if you stick with one of the decks which has been tuned by thousands of players over the last few weeks. If you look back through all the reports of people who write about innovative and successful new decks, the number of times they win are outnumbered by the times when they end up getting knocked out in the final or Top 8 by a play error caused by unfamiliarity with the deck, or just lose to someone playing the most popular deck (because they were so unlucky, or whatever).

Everyone testing in Standard knew about the Red/Green deck. They will have tested against it, and tuned their decks to give themselves an advantage against it, possibly even sacrificing other matchups in so doing. It didn’t stop the deck winning the British Nationals, the MSS, or being the only deck to go 7-0 in the U.S. Nationals. More players qualify for the Pro Tour using this plan than any of the others.

The downside to this plan is that your fortunes will rest on a lot of matches against very similar decks. Sometimes this will offer opportunities to outplay the opponents. Other times it will be about who draws more Mogg War Marshals. You may find it hard to cope with defeat in the latter case and prefer to trust in your own skills rather than rely on your skills at drawing the right cards at the right times.

2. Find a deck with a good matchup against the most popular deck.

Mike Flores has written extensively on this, and I can’t better what he says. If you are able to position your deck so that it beats the most popular decks easily, then you are likely to do well.

One point worth noting is that this doesn’t have to involve inventing a new deck from scratch. The Red/Green/White deck that won the recent qualifier was well known. The exercise is just as much about knowing decks that other people have been playing but which aren’t being played much, as it is about coming up with something completely new.

The danger with playing a tuned version of a deck that is aimed at the top decks is that it can be particularly vulnerable in the early rounds to other, less popular or well-regarded decks. If you have a clever deck that beats all Blue and Blue/Green decks, but folds to any burn, then you don’t want to be paired against me.

3. Play the deck you like best.

If there is a particular deck that you enjoy playing and understand well, then it is a perfectly decent option just to stick with it. This is particularly true when the metagame is shifting from week to week. Back when there would be one or three top decks throughout a qualifying season, you could get stuck with your favorite deck having an unfavorable matchup against a deck that you would be guaranteed to face over and over again. There’s a smaller risk of that at the moment, and you can find yourself in the happy situation where just by playing a deck with which you are familiar may help you when the metagame has shifted, when people are playing decks that aren’t prepared to cope with your patented White Weenie deck.

The problem with this is that your pet deck might just not be very good, and that there might never come a stage where it has a good matchup against most of the rest of the field. Jamie Wakefield recent experiences provide a lesson here – time was when just playing slow mono-colored decks would work often enough to be enjoyable, whereas for the past couple of years this hasn’t really worked out for him.

4. Focus on a strategy or card that is obviously very powerful but hasn’t seen much attention.

Wizards of the Coast have a deliberate policy of offering us lots of powerful cards and strategies, but none that are overpowered. For those who like off-beat decks, then cards that have proved themselves in other formats as very powerful, but which haven’t found a home in a particular Constructed format, are well worth exploring.

Here are a couple of practical and current examples of the different plans, for Time Spiral Block.

Red Deck Wins has been undergoing a small resurgence, as the White/Green decks have diminished in popularity and been replaced by Mono-Blue and Blue/Green decks. In a metagame where there are more bounce spells, and relatively fewer Tendrils of Corruption-based decks, it makes sense to have a look back at the Red Decks from the Yokohama Pro Tour. Tomoharu Saito, whose Grand Prix-winning deck is the basis for most Red Decks, made Top 8 at the Pro Tour with a splash for Green. A version of his deck, updated with Future Sight cards, might look like this:

Stormbind fell out of favor because it was hard to have it in the same deck as Greater Gargadon, and in the mirror and against Tendrils, Gargadon was clearly better. But with the shift in which decks are popular that has taken place since then – and the added value of including Tarmogoyf rather than, say, Blood Knight – it might be time to update Saito’s first Red Deck and try and qualify with it.

A different approach would be to look at a Storm deck. Time Spiral cards featuring Storm have made it into Vintage, Legacy, and Standard decks, but not featured in Block. I found an interesting deck by Larry Waymon which, with a couple of tweaks, looks like this:

Sideboard includes Ignite Memories for slower decks.

If Mike’s article inspires a revival of R/W/G decks this weekend, then it might not be the time to play the Red deck, but either of the above decks seem good against the various kinds of Blue decks and might be appropriate for the field which you face.

I think that there is still a lot to be learned from challenging old assumptions and theories about Constructed Magic in this age of many good decks (but no best deck), and I hope that the above advice is helpful next time you are sitting with your head in your hands the day before a tournament with no idea about what to play. If you still find yourself undecided, do remember that no one ever went wrong by playing a deck packed with Mountains.

Take care,

Dan Paskins

Bonus section:

I reckon that there must be a decent cross-over between “people who read my articles” and “people who read fantasy and science fiction books and can suggest things for me to read.” My current job involves a lot of travel round Britain, which means lots of time for reading, and I have a constant fear of having a long train ride and nothing to read. So here’s my top ten favorite authors, favorite books by them. Based on that, tell me in the forums what else I would enjoy, and what your favorite fantasy and science fiction books and authors are (or if you can’t believe that I like such and such an author, or that I’ve picked the wrong book by them).

Isaac Asimov (Foundation and Empire).

R. Scott Bakker (The Darkness That Came Before)

Trudi Carnavan (Magician’s Guild)

Steven Erikson (Deadhouse Gates)

Raymond Feist (Rise of a Merchant Prince)

David Gemmell (Legend)

Peter Hamilton (The Reality Dysfunction)

R.A.Salvatore (Siege of Darkness)

Neal Stephenson (Snow Crash)

Harry Turtledove (The Centre Cannot Hold)

These are the writers that I enjoy most, and I tend to buy their books on release. Some are better works of literature than others (Harry Turtledove’s characters are barely two dimensional and the books stick to a pretty rigid formula, but I like the way he does the alternative history), some are just great stories (anything by David Gemmell or Salvatore), and others are powered by the fascinating ideas that drive the plot (Foundation). With Neal Stephenson, I found his shorter books superb, and the longer ones (Baroque trilogy and Cryptonomicon) having some brilliant passages and some weaker sections. (Like George Martin’s most recent book, a tough editor could have turned them into far better books.) My favorite author is Steven Erikson – if you haven’t read any of the Malazan Book of the Fallen then I cannot recommend it highly enough. The quality of the ideas and characters is extraordinary, he tells a great story, and is witty and amusing with it.

So that’s what I’ve been reading – how about you?