Focus. Progress. Will.

In his first article for StarCityGames.com, Anthony Lowry explains the three principles he uses in life and how they can be applied to deckbuilding.

"Progress is impossible without change, and those who cannot change their minds cannot change anything. Change is its motivator. And change has its enemies."

Readers, grinders, fans, and everyone in between, I welcome you! For those who followed my previous work in the past, I thank you all for the support you’ve given me throughout this journey. For those that are reading my work for the first time, thank you for joining me! I’m Anthony Lowry, a local StarCityGames.com grinder, part-time DJ, aggro aficionado, and avid brewer and builder. I’ve been playing Magic competitively for about three years now, and learning new things is what keeps me playing. My goal with every tournament, whether I’m watching it or playing in it, is to learn as much as I can and improve because of it. If you want to know more about me, I highly suggest checking out Robert Martin Inside The Magic Studio with me from this past Tuesday. It really goes in depth about my experiences, my Magic career, and how I approach the game.

The StarCityGames.com Invitational in New Jersey was one of the greatest learning experiences in my career to date. I’ve been a solo worker for most of my career, and the Invitational was the first major event where I worked with someone else full-time. I had the fortune (or misfortune depending on who you ask) of spending the entire week beforehand with colleague and leader of the Perry Hat Mafia AJ Kerrigan. As many of you probably already know, AJ is an incredibly intelligent kid, and the amount of work we were able to get done across two formats in such a short amount of time was astounding.

Not only did we iron out the details of our deck of choice, Jund Aggro, but we laid out enough of a foundation to get me up to comfort in Legacy. As a player, I have a tendency to go "too deep" with my card choices, and AJ helped me stay the course all the way through Sunday. This cohesive effort combined with the amazing work ethic of the players in the area put my confidence higher than it’s ever been for a tournament (major props to the players over at TOGIT for the selfless assistance in preparation!). While I did make day 2 of the Invitational, I did not fare as well on that day. AJ wound up dropping the same round I did, but he went on to take 19th place in the Standard Open with Jund Aggro, our choice for the Invitational. 

Worlds Week is behind us, and some truly awesome Magic was on display for the whole world to watch. It was a real treat seeing the amount of work, effort, and thought these players put into each and every match, game, play, and card. That effort and passion is what keeps me motivated every day. The StarCityGames.com Open Series in Minneapolis was also last weekend, and there was no shortage of awesomeness there either. Brian Kibler essentially broke the aggro spectrum of the format, and the power of information allowed three copies of G/R Aggro to make Top 8, with two more copies in the Top 16.

What if I told you that the cohesiveness of the G/R Aggro deck and the amount of work these players put into what they love both have very similar things in common? Three encompassing factors—focal points—that are the building blocks for a Standard deck and a modern-day player and deckbuilder. This week I’d like to share this philosophy, which revolves around development throughout all aspects of the game, including physical and emotional factors, all put into three words.




Focus is, put simply, your goal. Your end game. Focus also involves utilizing the best tools for achieving those goals. Figuring out what tools are the best tools, what path is the best path, and the best way of making it all work is how you progress. Lastly, outside factors, distractions, and elements will almost always have an effect, positive and negative, directly and indirectly. The strength of our will can determine not only how strongly we can thwart the unwanted influences and negative distractions but how we’re able to take in positivity and encouragement.

I’ve found that these three focalizations that I’ve been using for my recent development as a player can easily be converted and translated into deckbuilding. Every deck that’s at least trying to be competitive has a focus. G/R Aggro’s focus is its utilization of huge, evasive, and hard-to-deal with powerhouses, which is set up by cheap, efficient, and quick ground threats, all revolving around an engine that, for lack of a better term, keeps the wheels going. It progresses that strategy by either maximizing its potential explosiveness (Burning-Tree Emissary builds) or incorporating resiliency and staying power. Grindy midrange decks can often be a problem for aggro players in today’s Standard, and cards like Domri Rade assist in pushing away elements that could stop your plan as well as help the ship stay its course. 

Now that the landscape is laid out, let’s set out and apply it. As a disclaimer, none of this is to be taken as fact. It’s merely a personal approach to a very complicated and convoluted series of subjects, all of which are being encompassed by a game that’s equally if not more complex. What may work for me may not work for the next person, and your personal qualities as a player will play a great role in finding a spot where you can flourish. 

As I mentioned earlier, my focus as a player is to maximize my learning opportunities in and around the game. The goal of Magic is to win, yes, but I am strongly of the belief that winning is a side effect of improvement and if we focus on improving ourselves and learning as a priority above all else, then the winning will come. This creates a tool that allows me to lift the stresses and pressures of winning and losing. As a result, I can spend more energy on my focus.

I know, I sound like a robot—or a Dragon Ball Z character . . .

With that tool, we can develop a way to progress as best as possible. It’s different from person to person, so what may work for me may not work for you or the next person, but I’ve learned that the best way I can progress is to surround myself with people that are looking to put in the time to improve in the best way possible for them. I don’t necessarily mean people who are "better" than me, as I value players who may not be as experienced but are doing everything they can to get better over players who are tremendously skilled, but lacks the work ethic and effort (though there’s something to learn from everyone and everything regardless).

Maximizing my progress also involves worrying about just that: my progress. Yes, there are players that have different skillsets and some excel more than others, but comparing myself or other players to anything doesn’t really help me progress toward my goal. This sort of leads into our last focal point. We have our focus and know what we can do to maximize our progress, but what out there is going to test our will? What’s going to try to stray us away from what we’re trying to do? 

The intangibles. Outside factors that are there to set you back that you have no control over. They’re there to disrupt your focus, impede your progress, and challenge your will. A topdecked Bonfire of the damned, mana screw and flood, and the many bad beats a friend of yours tells you after they’ve lost are all part of it. They’re going to happen, and they’re going to happen often. Maximizing your progress toward your endgame can differ from one person to the next, but for me I asked myself a very simple question, one that isn’t asked enough: 

Why does it matter? 

For every game where something doesn’t go your way, there will be a game where something does, and there will always, always be something you could have done differently in game, during sideboarding, before the match began, or during preparation for the event. Knowing that, I will always go back to what I could have done better every single time.

I can’t physically prevent my opponent from topdecking their two outer. They can’t prevent me from doing the same.

I can’t demand that my opponent play better or worse. They can’t demand I do the same.

I can’t blame luck every single time something doesn’t go my way.

I can’t let these things distract me from my goal. The goal is not "get to your endgame as miserably as possible!"

"If you don’t like it, change it. If you can’t change it, change the way you think about it."

If I have time to worry about these sorts of things, then I have time to strengthen my will and focus on things I can actually do something about. When you want something bad enough, you hunger for it, you put everything you have into it, and you’ll stop at nothing to attain it.

With all of this said, there is such a thing as positive intangibles, and they too can affect you negatively. Sometimes you’ll find yourself running hot, winning every match in a tournament, and making a run despite how well you’re actually playing. This can impede one’s progress and can be as threatening as the negative intangibles. Having the will to assess things even when things are going completely your way is just as valuable a skill as doing so when things aren’t. All of these principles can be applied to deckbuilding as well, and many of the variables, methods of progressing, and goal setting that were previously talked about here can be carried over. 

Let’s use Legacy as an example, mostly because my familiarity with Legacy isn’t too vast, which means both you and I can learn to develop a plan in not-as-familiar territory as we go. Cascade is one of my favorite mechanics ever. I started playing around when Bloodbraid Elf took center stage in Standard, and I’ve loved it ever since. My focus for this exercise is to build a deck that maximizes the power of the cascade mechanic. No, no. I really want to push the envelope on what cascade can do in terms of power level. I know that Bloodbraid Elf and Shardless Agent are generally considered to be the best cascade spells by a pretty wide margin, so now our focus has the primary tools to get going.

4 Bloodbraid Elf
4 Shardless Agent

We have our focus, and we have the best tools for that focus. What’s the best way we can utilize these tools? Shardless BUG uses Shardless Agent with Ancestral Vision, and both of the premier cascade decks (Jund and Shardless BUG) utilize Deathrite Shaman. We can safely incorporate this tactic into our plan. 

4 Bloodbraid Elf
4 Shardless Agent
4 Deathrite Shaman
4 Ancestral Vision

Here we reach a pretty vast fork in the road. It’s pretty clear that we’re going to be playing green, red, and blue in some amount, but how much of each? Assuming we want to utilize all of Deathrite Shaman’s abilities without unreasonably stretching our mana base, we’re left with four options: RUG splashing black, Jund splashing blue, BUG splashing red, and the full four colors.

RUG splashing black gives us the full benefits of the Grove of the Burnwillows + Punishing Fire engine; a mana base that can easily cast Bloodbraid Elf and Shardless Agent; Brainstorm; and Jace, the Mind Sculptor. We lose most if not all of the disruption package that Jund and BUG have, which includes Hymn to Tourach, Thoughtseize, and Duress, as well as staples in black midrange/tempo decks Liliana of the Veil and Dark Confidant. This configuration, at least on paper, should be strong against the fair decks of the format but is probably the weakest of the three against dedicated combo decks. Deathrite Shaman can get pretty awkward as well since you won’t have that many black sources to activate its black ability.

The Jund configuration combines the powerful hand disruption / Liliana of the Veil semi-package that the RUG setup doesn’t have with Ancestral Vision and Brainstorm if we really want it as well as reliable Deathrite Shaman activations. However, gaining access to Jace, the Mind Sculptor may be a bit too ambitious (though within the realm of possibility), and getting cut off from blue at many points during a game could be more crippling to the deck than any other combination. If you get cut off of black in the RUG build, more often than not you can still utilize most if not all of your cards depending on your setup and card choices. Here, not being able to cast your Ancestral Vision or Brainstorm could be highly troubling.

The BUG splash red setup isn’t as prone to land disruption as the Jund setup (though more than the RUG setup) since Bloodbraid Elf would be your only red card (and maybe Lightning Bolt). You get the best of the Jund and Shardless BUG shell in this setup, but you lose the Punishing Fire engine and Pyroblast. This may not seem like much at first, but the former is one of the best engines in combating fair decks and the latter is one of the best sideboard cards if not the best sideboard card in Legacy.

The full four-color combination gives us the best of all the worlds, where we can jam all of the aforementioned cards and combinations into a single deck. Getting hit by a Wasteland could easily destroy that plan, though, since this puts the most strain on our mana. Building our mana base carefully is going to be a big challenge, but if pulled off correctly and with the help of Deathrite Shaman (and possibly more nonland cards), it would yield the most pure power level card for card. We would also have to relinquish our own access to Wasteland if we’re going to do this (not even I’m that greedy).

In a vacuum, the four-color configuration is the best because, well, you’re playing all the best cards in each of the colors you’re playing relative to the cascade mechanic. Taking a vacuum to a gunfight doesn’t always end well, though, especially in a format as vast as Legacy.

So with this fork in the road, we’re left with a few questions:

Do I value disruption, attrition, and incremental card advantage more than immediate card advantage and impactful threats?

Do I value immediate card advantage and steady but impactful threats more?

Do I value all of this equally at the cost of consistency?

How much can I afford to do everything I want while minimizing the chances of getting punished for it?

Granted, these questions are more personal preference questions, but that’s because I don’t really think there’s a strictly right or wrong choice out of these. When left with choices like this unless there’s an obviously better tried and true option, I’ll go for what suits me the best. Personally, I’m pretty greedy, so the four-color option is the most appealing, but as mentioned in the disclaimer, what may work for me may not work for you. I know that I have a strong preference toward going over the top in Magic with some combat tricks and a hint of grind thrown in. You may prefer the super grindy style with a dash of flexibility.

With knowledge of the pros and cons of each configuration and taking the reasonable parts of my personal preferences into consideration, I find myself leaning toward RUG splashing black. This is because I feel it gives me the most room to operate offensively while still getting the most out of the cards I can cascade into. For the sake of this exercise, we’ll focus on this.

RUG splashing black:

4 Bloodbraid Elf
4 Shardless Agent
4 Deathrite Shaman
4 Ancestral Vision
4 Punishing Fire
4 Grove of the Burnwillows
2-3 Jace, the Mind Sculptor
4 Brainstorm
1-3 Lightning Bolt

Now that we’ve chosen a path, we want to maximize what that path offers us relative to our focus. As previously mentioned, the ability to play Jace, the Mind Sculptor, Brainstorm, Punishing Fire, and Lightning Bolt is huge, along with Pyroblast and multiple other utility cards. Tarmogoyf needs no real explanation, and efficiency is the key when building a deck like this. From here we need to ask ourselves how far into black we want to go without trying to jam too hard. I’m not really in the market for double black spells, but I wouldn’t mind having some hard removal (aka reliable ways of dealing with Tarmogoyf, planeswalkers, and cheap threats.) Abrupt Decay fits this bill nicely and wouldn’t require me to invest much into the mana base to support it. Dismember is also a fine option that’s definitely worth considering.

With most of the shell around where I want it to be, how will our lands support them? Admittedly, building mana bases is one of my weakest points as a deckbuilder (I’m sure that Patrick Chapin Next Level Deckbuilding will more than help me with that!), so there’s a good chance that it won’t be perfect. Some number of Grove of the Burnwillows—most likely four—will be included, as well at least eight fetchlands. It’s kind of awkward playing four pseudo Taigas in your predominantly U/G deck, but Deathrite Shaman more than helps mitigate that problem.

If we’re looking to splash a bit more black to support Abrupt Decay, then we have to consider how many Wastelands we can get away with playing if any at all. My gut answer is two, but that can certainly change. We’re also playing a pretty high amount of four-drops as well between Bloodbraid Elf and Jace, the Mind Sculptor, so playing Wasteland can be even more of a strain. 

Here’s a preliminary layout considering the cards we already want to play:

2 Bayou
2 Volcanic Island
2 Tropical Island
4 Grove of the Burnwillows
3 Wasteland
1 Forest
1 Island
4 Misty Rainforest
4 Wooded Foothills
1 Underground Sea

Looks decent if you ask me, though the Underground Sea feels a bit awkward. Regardless, I feel that we have enough black sources to reliably utilize Deathrite Shaman at its fullest while still casting Abrupt Decay with some feasibility. With 24 lands and about 30 spells that I know I want to cast for sure, we still need to fill out the rest of the maindeck and the sideboard. I’m all for maximizing my cascades and Brainstorm certainly helps us do that, but what about cards like Sylvan Library? I used to love this type of effect in these decks because you can spend the entire game setting up insane cascades, filtering bad cards, and making the most out of late-game fetchlands.

Gerry Thompson, being the mad scientist that he is, has convinced me otherwise. The cards you want to play and cascade into should have an immediate effect when resolved, and Sylvan Library, despite being very, very good at what it does, does not provide that.

A card that’s great off cascade, assists in making your removal spells better, helps set up your Brainstorms and Jaces, and is a removal spell on its own is this little guy:

Widely considered the best planeswalker in Standard, Domri Rade has a vast array of applications in this type of deck. While it usually won’t have the inevitability that we’re used to in Standard, it can put a beating on fair decks in a hurry. It allows your Shardless Agents, Bloodbraid Elfs, and any other creature that isn’t your own Deathrite Shaman to kill their Deathrite Shaman. It lets you trade your Tarmogoyfs up with theirs if you have any other creature. Most importantly, it provides an immediate impact on the board, which is what we’re looking for. Cascading into this isn’t the worst, either, as it generally will make things more difficult for fair-playing opponents.

Let’s put this mish-mash of cards together, shall we?

As we progress further, we’re going to encounter problems that test our deck’s will to win before we even play a game with it. This build is what I want to have, but there are a lot of structural problems with it. The first glaring one is the lack of blue cards to properly support Force of Will. I’m not a huge fan of playing cards for the sake of making another card better, so just jamming blue cards for the sake of jamming blue cards is not something I’m looking to do. This leaves us with two options: finding blue cards that help Force of Will while still progressing our focus further or not playing Force of Will maindeck if at all.

I’m fine with not playing Force of Will, but I’d be a bit more wary about it in a setting like a StarCityGames.com Legacy Open than I would at a local tournament or an Invitational where I’d expect more fair decks than anything (and even then Force of Will isn’t the worst). Shardless BUG has access to Baleful Strix, which makes it way easier for them to up their blue card count, but this once again brings up the question of how much more can we afford to splash black to make things work the way we want to. I’m starting to feel that having the black splash is worth more than having Wasteland, but as you can probably assess, the choice is certainly difficult. This is what the deck would look like if we opted to keep the Force of Wills in the sideboard:

With this configuration, we can board into a more than sufficient amount of cards for Force of Will in the matchups where I want to have Force of Will the most. I’m still pretty skeptical about the Underground Sea, but I do want to have a blue source that I can use to activate Deathrite Shaman. Of course, this build is going to have serious issues with dedicated combo decks, which we’ll absolutely run into throughout the course of a StarCityGames.com Legacy Open.

The strength of our sideboard gives this deck a particularly strong will against those decks in games 2 and 3, and I’m perfectly fine with having a weaker will in game 1. Another test of will that this deck faces is dealing with mana denial decks. RUG Delver, Goblins, Death and Taxes, and Four-Color Loam are just a few of the decks that can really make life difficult for us if we aren’t careful. Playing more basic lands is an option. I can see playing another basic Island or a basic Mountain, and I can see running a fourth Wasteland to combat opposing Wastelands and Rishadan Ports. Unfortunately, my experience in Legacy isn’t vast enough to come up with a tried and true answer to this problem other than trying to play around it as best as you can.

Deathrite Shaman helps combat this, and the previously mentioned Sylvan Library is excellent at combating it as well. Life from the Loam helps and gives you the added benefit of throwing the mana denial plan right back at your opponent. It isn’t perfect and there are certainly other structural issues that can hurt us, but I hope that this was a good way to demonstrate how the three principles that I apply to life can be applied to deckbuilding.

I’ll leave you with some Standard awesomeness. I got to play in an awesome event in Delaware this past weekend with G/R Aggro, and I’m most likely going to be working on this deck and tuning it to my strengths going forward:

I went pretty in depth on why Chandra, Pyromaster is strong in my interview with Rob, but the rest of the deck’s direction is pretty close to Andrew Tenjum’s. Burning-Tree Emissary’s mana-fixing mode has slowly gained respect, and this deck utilizes it more than most. Most of what I have to say about the deck echoes what he had to say in his deck tech last week, but the sideboard wound up not getting much explanation.

The full playset of Fog can very easily translate into an extra combat step when played properly, and I want to maximize my chances of doing that. In other words, we aren’t in theory using Fog as a traditional Fog. Its functionality is in between a "tap your guys, draw a card" Cryptic Command and a Relentless Assault (for lack of a better comparison).

Ruric Thar, the Unbowed is criminally underplayed and can be a real nightmare for spell-based midrange and control decks to deal with on top of every other threat you’re throwing out at them. Burning Earth is, well, Burning Earth, and the extra Mountain is there to support Burning Earth and helps when bringing in cards that raise our curve significantly, like Zealous Conscripts and Ruric Thar.

That’s it from me for this week. I’ll be back in two weeks to talk more about Standard in preparation for the StarCityGames.com Open Series in Baltimore. I highly encourage you to check me out on Twitter, Facebook, and Twitch, where I’m always putting out decklists, conversations, and theory. Until then, I’ll see you guys around!

Thanks for reading~

Anthony "Pyromaster" Lowry
Twitter: @aulowry