From The Lab – Parting Lessons

Read Craig Jones every Tuesday... at StarCityGames.com!
Craig “The Professor” Jones is signing of his weekly column for a few months in order to complete his PhD… and he goes out with a proverbial bang. Today’s From The Lab sees Prof in a reflective mood, as he takes a trawl through his personal history books and highlights all the lessons he’s learnt thus far from high-level play. There’s definitely something in here for everyone… good luck with your PhD Prof, and come back soon!

First off, I suppose I have to open with some (possibly) sad news. This is going to be the last From The Lab for a while. I’m coming near to the end of the allotted time for my PhD studies. The university death robots are closing in. I’m fortunate enough to have a job lined up for when I finish, but unfortunately it means I’m going to have to devote myself completely to writing up my thesis over the next couple of months.

Since the Nationals win, content has been a little on the tricky side for me. I really don’t have any interest in Time Spiral Block Constructed (I’m skipping Firenze), and because I’ve had to move around a lot the past few months (including a three-week stay on a Caribbean island, which is absolute torture as only, uh, having lunch at a beach bar while girls sunbathe topless on the beach can be). This has left me without a stable Internet connection to play MTGO. As you can imagine, it’s quite tricky to write a weekly column on Magic when you don’t have an opportunity to play Magic.

Rather than talk about the aesthetics of Charring people to the face, I thought I’d look at some of the tricks I’ve learned over the years. Some people just burst onto the scene, while others take a while to get there. By pointing out some of the many potholes I’ve fallen down, hopefully you’ll be able to take a shortcut or two.

GP: Birmingham 1998

This really should have been a lesson in how a good red deck is constructed. I wish I had access to the full decklist, but sadly it’s been lost to the mists of time. This Grand Prix doesn’t even show up on the Past Tournaments page at MagictheGathering.com. The important features were still present. The deck featured fast efficient beaters (Jackal Pup, Mogg Flunkies) backed up with hefty burn (Sonic Burst). More importantly it had good utility (Fireslinger) and a good backup plan to revert to if the early rush failed (Rathi Dragon, Spellshock).

The cards may be different, but the same philosophies still apply to modern Red decks. You can easily see Char as a replacement for Sonic Burst, Greater Gargadon for Rathi Dragon, and possibly even Manabarbs in the Spellshock role.

If the environment has these features in red:

a) Fast, efficient monsters

b) Efficient, high damage burn spells (three or four damage for two to three mana)

c) A solid backup plan that features either repeatable sources of damage or a bigger threat.

Then a good Red deck will emerge.

Unfortunately, I only partially grasped the lesson.

At the time, I was playing Survival of the Fittest decks because they did funky cool stuff. Then I ran into David Sutcliffe at a PTQ and saw what I thought was a good draw get completely eviscerated by Red spells. That convinced me I should play his deck, and a couple of weeks later I won Grand Prix: Birmingham.

This was a lesson I spotted and got correct. When you’re used to building your own decks it’s easy to get too attached. Survival was fantastic fun, but Sutcliffe Sligh was a ruthless assassin.

Unfortunately, while I got that aspect right, there was plenty of stuff still to learn. And of course, when you get a lucky break and pick up success before you are ready there’s a danger you don’t realise exactly what you need to repeat that success.

This was shown at:

PT: Rome 1998

Thankfully the deck I played here is lost to the mists of time. It was an abomination.

I got caught up in the notion of hyper-efficient beaters and pushed the deck too far into unreliability. The creatures I assembled (Carnophage, Flesh Reaver, and Imaginary Pet — in a Red deck. I did warn you it was an abomination) simply had too many drawbacks when taken as a whole. The great strength of Red decks is that they offset a lack of power for a good degree of consistency. On paper you are never theoretically the favorite with a red deck. All too often people make the mistake of thinking what their deck can do is what their deck will do. There is a percentage gap between the good and bad draws and Red decks have fed on this like sharks for the past decade.

By playing unreliable dross like Imaginary Pet I created my own percentage gap. This is fatal for a deck archetype that usually relies on being rock solid consistent to win.

This lesson was reinforced by some last minute madness with my land composition. I was already running a three-color deck, but then decided that rather than play as many dual lands as possible I’d run two basic Swamp and two basic Mountain to give me some protection against cards like Blood Moon or Back to Basics.

Yep, I widened the percentage gap still further and rather predictably got color screwed to lose yet more games.

PT: New York 1999

I continued to run with a multi-colored beatdown plan. Well, not exactly. This was Urza’s Block Constructed, and the green beatdown monsters were really good (Pouncing Jaguar, Wild Dogs, Albino Troll). However, there was also a very scary Blue/Brown (artifact) Tinker deck that cheated enormous Colossi into play. My solution was quite innovative, as I used Crop Rotation and Thran Quarry to support a number of surprise splashes like Bone Shredder and Rebuild to shore up the flaws in a Mono-Green beatdown plan.

I quite liked this deck even though this is actually an extremely flawed strategy. Beatdown decks should be consistent. Generally, your solution to “what do I do if they play X” is not to play cards that might fight against card X, but rather go directly to the source of the problem. An opponent doesn’t get to draw or play X if you kill him beforehand.

The rule used to be Red decks that splashed Terminate to deal with Spiritmongers and other giants got horribly destroyed by other Red decks without really gaining much benefit against the giant monster decks in any case. There are exceptions to this rule, but they usually involve freaks of nature like Tarmogoyf.

But way back in 1999, my little splashes were okay as the cards were few, single colored, and mostly had cycling (Rebuild and Expunge), so I could at least do something with them in a pinch.

Unfortunately, the real lesson learned here was make sure you keep up to date with the metagame. I was happy because my off-color splashes enabled me to beat what I thought would be the dominant Tinker decks. This didn’t help me when the Tinker decks actually came with a Red splash for Arc Lightning and other naughtiness. Sometimes that percentage gap just isn’t wide enough for the beatdown sharks to bite out a chunk.

I was still learning. At the Pro Tour I’d noticed the Tinker decks were pretty good. Armed with this knowledge, I ported the deck into Standard and beat up a few Red decks on the way to making the National team for the first time.

Worlds Yokohama 1999

At the European Championships that year, fellow Nationals team mate John Ormerod also learned a lesson. Vet Craig’s deck for the World Championships. Do not let him play very bad Auratog / Rancor decks.

With Ormerod on veto I got lucky and switched to a Replenish deck that might have been the best deck in that field. I also had rickety prototype of the Enduring Renewal / Goblin Bombardment deck for Extended. My record for the constructed section was a solid 8-3-1.

Unfortunately, there was a rather more important lesson to be learnt from this World Championships.

Draft takes practise.

Killing the Johnny inside me for Limited took a long time. Endless Wurm? Sure, I’ll play that. I’ve got some enchantments that combo with it.

I had a flaw. In draft I was always looking for the Hail Mary pass, when a solid running game would do the job (I’m hoping I’ve got the sports reference correct).

Take that 8-3-1, append a 1-5 from draft day, and that doesn’t equal a money finish.

The World Championships is tough because it runs across multiple formats. Some players end up specialising in either Limited or Constructed, but if you ever want to win the big show some day you need to keep fresh in all forms of the game.

The Hail Mary problem in draft was a particularly hard bug to eradicate.

PT: London 1999

Go forward to PT: London 99 and I’m trying to draft decks with four Slow Motion and a Plow Under. That is not how draft works.

In my defence, MTGO was a far off glimmer, and I hadn’t even discovered the Internet. You can’t play a Pro Tour having only done a couple of drafts in the format. Most people can’t, at least.

Assorted GP Tournaments 1999-2001

I hate the bye system for GPs, even now I actually have byes. It’s just wrong that the natural 5-2 fails to make it in while the 2-2 does. (Although, paradoxically, it’s sort of fairer now that European GPs have nine rounds on Day 1.)

While draft took me a while to pick up, I wasn’t too bad at Sealed deck construction. There is a separate level of mastery that comes to extracting something from weak pools, and I’m only just learning the ropes, but as long as the pool was okay I could put up a fight.

Unfortunately there’s a harsh lesson for anyone with one or zero byes. Unless you are very lucky you are going to lose a match to a considerably better deck, and you are going to lose a match to mana problems. Then you will fail to advance to Day 2 on tiebreakers. This is the X-2 law of Day 1 Limited GPs.

This lesson isn’t exactly for you. It’s one I hope the tournament organisers learn. They’ve learnt it for the PT’s, why should it be any different for the GP’s. Junk the 64/128 player cut-off, and do it on points.

PT: New York 2000

I played a substandard rebel deck and failed to make Day 2.

The lesson here was to keep better communication. This was the tournament that announced the arrival of the Palace crew, as Warren Marsh made it all the way to the final.

Unfortunately, I was on the other side of the country. When I was suggesting the pro-White Voice, the consensus build was a fast version that could win even if the opponent got Lin Sivvi down first.

Then the consensus shifted back in the other direction, and I got left behind.

Teams are important. Keep in regular touch with your playtest team-mates.

PT: Chicago 2000

I audibled to a horrible Green deck of a friend’s that I managed to ruin even more.

The reason I did this was because I got too involved in helping that friend out (it was their first PT).

Help out your mates, but don’t trash your own performance. I had a reasonable Skies deck I should have played, but didn’t because I’d worked so much on trying to get the other deck to work I realised I didn’t have a proper sideboard for my own deck.

PT: Tokyo 2001

This was the heartbreaker. We had a good working team and came up with some good decks. I liked my Machine Head variant with Blue for Probe and Recoil. It took me to a 7-0 record on Day 1. Day 2 I was 9-1 and a win away from Top 8. Then I fell victim to a savage succession of top decks and fell to pieces.

From 1-0 up and a game away from Top 8, I got hit by double Skizzik off the top and three successive mana screws. After that I was just plain gone.

Richard Feldman made some very good points in the punt versus bad beat article last week, but sometimes you just get battered. The lesson here is not to try and rescue the bad games. Sometimes you can’t. But when it all goes horribly wrong you have to pick yourself up, dust yourself down, and be ready to go into action right again.

There are two connected (but not necessarily the same) lessons here.

First, you have to be prepared to own up to your own bad plays rather than blaming poor luck.

Second, you have to accept that some games are just out of your control, and you must be able to put it aside and move onto to the next round.

I know these lessons both contradict each other, but that’s how it is.

You can play incorrectly and have this be masked by what appears to be bad luck.

You can make a statistically correct decision, only to have it turn out to be the wrong choice because of how the draws pan out.

In the first case you need to scrutinize your own play and try and work out what you could have done differently. In the second you have to be prepared to make the same call again in the future. A statistically correct call is still a statistically correct call, even if your opponent was lucky enough to have the right sequence of cards to trump it last time.

PT: Barcelona 2001

You can’t compete at a professional level in Limited formats having only drafted the set a couple of times.

Worlds Toronto 2001

See above.

GP: Warsaw 2001

There was a sequence of GPs around this time where I actually had three byes. Warsaw seemed especially promising, as it was the same weekend as the team Pro Tour.

Much has been made of the recent brouhaha between Pros and Joes. One of the criticisms is that Pro’s don’t seem to be that… well… nice.

I like to think I’m a nice guy. Making third in the fan favorite ballot out of twenty would seem to imply that a lot of you out there think so too (I’d like to thank all of you, but Craig has promised to remove all my limbs with a rusty saw if I mention the Invitational again). This comes with a cost.

I’ve lost a lot in terms of both money and finishes over the years because of this.

In Warsaw, I had one of those opponents where they aren’t actually deliberately trying to stall you, but they are playing way too slowly. I didn’t call a judge, because at the time I was dumb enough to think that was somehow dishonorable, and ended up losing because I took some risks that ended up being punished in order to try and win rather than draw the game.

A few years before in Cannes I had one of the worst judge rulings ever in my career when my opponent managed to completely screw over their deck (missing a card, aura’s they didn’t own being swapped). Their penalty: a warning rather than the game loss it should have been had I appealed. I didn’t, because I felt that would be an assy thing to do, and my team ended up losing because of it.

Nice is commendable, but you shouldn’t be afraid to bring a judge over when necessary.

And if you’re on the other side, even if you play the game casually, you have to take into account that your opponent is not necessarily being an arsehole. They just want to play the game and it can be incredibly frustrating if they’re playing against someone who isn’t representing the game state correctly, or is playing at a speed that won’t ever allow the game to complete. Casual is fine, but the game still has to conform to some rules. Yeah, there are jerks, but even the best of us get annoyed at games where we know we can never do better than a draw if we get mana screwed in the first game, because there will never be time for a third.

PT: New Orleans 2001

I played the team deck, a prototype version of what eventually became Dump Truck, even though it didn’t suit me… and as a result this was the first PT I actually dropped out of before the end of Day 1.

Even though this was the tournament of Reanimator and Trix (even without Necro), I still should have played a Red deck. It wouldn’t have won, but I would have stood a better chance of a consistent finish.

One of the amusing things was hearing how a team-mate had actually short cut test games against Red in order to fit more in.

“We just assumed they lost if you dealt with the early rush.”

“Uh, it’s the late game where they actually kill you.”

You still have to kill a Red deck. Sometimes it can play control on your win conditions and eventually eke out the long game.

Most of the time you should go with your team. Sometimes you have to recognise when to split with the herd. The best example of this is from PT: Honolulu 2006. The colony came up with the Beach House control deck. Heezy didn’t like it and ran with Gruul instead. The rest is history.

PT: San Diego 2002

Another Draft PT… but wait, I actually knew this one. It was also the now sadly defunct Rochester format. I was better at this because there was less hidden information in the draft… unfortunately, back then the PTQ format switched for the PT itself. So usually I qualified with Rochester and then scrubbed out with Booster, or just scrubbed out with Booster at the PTQ stage.

The one problem with Rochester is that you can see with perfect clarity just how badly the boosters are f***ing you. I was in the right colors for the seat, but the boosters didn’t break.

That’s the bad beat story.

The punt happened in the first round afterwards, when I was still so down about how the draft had gone and I made a mistake and threw away a key game against Noah Boeken. The draft was bad, but Noah’s appalling draws gave me a lifeline. Win that and I draw into Day 2, and get to fight again in a new draft.

I didn’t jump and missed the lifeline.

The lesson here is you need to be mentally tough. There are bad beats and bad drafts, but there are also escape opportunities for the alert. Look for them. Sometimes that 1-2 or 1-1-1 record will do the job.

PT: Venice 2003

A long break before this one. I worked quite hard on a Red/Green Kamahl deck that (supposedly) would destroy Slide. Unfortunately, my testing mainly involved playing two decks against each other solo. This is really bad. Yes, you will get to know how each deck ticks, but you will also destroy other aspects of your game by creating bad automatisms.

In reality, it was nerves that did for me here. After being off the PT for so long I managed to make a horrible series of plays that were perhaps the only way my first round opponent could have won.

PT: Philadelphia 2005

This team thing, pretty important.

You may remember this PT as Gifts versus White Weenie. Well, about a day before the event I was going to run a straight Green/Black version of with multiple copies of Hana Kami.

Thankfully, I spotted Stuart Wright was a considerably better deck constructor, and ran his list (or one rather close to it). Somehow I wandered within a win of Top 8. Then I screwed up against Olivier Ruel. I went for an infinitesimally possible win when I should have let the game time out with me in a rock solid position, rather than as rock solid underdog about to lose the next turn. Olivier may have conceded, he may not, but that still had better odds than hoping to draw the one Kokusho in my deck.

This isn’t quite the lesson… the lesson is:

If someone has a better deck than yours, play it.

PT: Los Angeles 2005

My second X-0 on Day 1.

Then good matchups became bad matchups, and I also somehow managed to mulligan something like fourteen times.

8-0 is good, but it’s still only halfway through the tournament. There are still another eight rounds to go, and you have to be absolutely focused for each of them.

On a more positive note, I was very pleased with my card evaluations for this one. I knew dredge would be nuts, and indeed it was. Teaming up with the Belgians was also very important, as we came to the deck from different angles and were able to shore up the holes on both sides.

More people building a deck together = good.

Worlds Yokohama 2005

Now I had MTGO and had learned enough that I should use it. Having drafted a format twenty or more times is considerably better than three. The result: A 4-2 draft day. Still not amazing, but solid, and one of the matches I lost was fairly unlucky.

Unfortunately, I forgot the lesson of trying to build decks on your own is just too hard. I knew Greater Good was silly with Yosei, but the deck I came with was a primitive caveman version compared to Karsten’s successful version.

If you try and build decks on your own, there’s a good chance you’ll spot the good combo and get excited. Unfortunately, what inevitably happens is everyone else has the same deck, but they have a considerably more evolved version.

I also managed to punt Round 1 against my nemesis Rasmus Sibast by changing the game plan because he was screwed. He recovered from the screw and then destroyed me with the Cranial Extractions I should have Extracted first. Game plans are good. Stick to them.

PT: Honolulu 2006

This one has been beaten to death. Good contacts were again mega, as Billy Moreno, who Nick West introduced me to in Los Angeles, took what I thought was an average deck concept in Zoo and turned it into a monster.

We should all know about the playing to win rather than playing to lose theory by now.

The other thing… Variance can work in your favor. This time I got the good draws and the good matchups. It isn’t always negative. The trick with Magic is really seizing the opportunity when presented.

PT: Prague 2006

I’d drafted the other Ravnica formats to death, but Dissension made this PT almost a prerelease. I picked up a money finish. On the one hand I think this was good as it made me believe I could pick up my Limited game with practise. But on the other I 1-2’ed the first draft and needed a fortuitous set of events to crawl out of the second and into Day 2.

PT: Charleston 2006

We made Day 2. That’s about as far as I’ll go.

I hate team formats. I used to think it was a geographical lottery about how many Pro Players actually lived in the same square mile. Then PV, Edel, and Zampere came out of nowhere. But it turned out they were just insanely good anyway.

PT: Kobe 2006, PT: Geneva 2007

This is more about lessons I still have to learn. As with Prague I 1-2’ed the first draft on both of these. Unlike Prague, I didn’t come through the second draft. For both of these I thought my decks were good. My suspicion is that the decks are fine, but I’m not playing correctly. Maybe it’s nerves for the first few rounds, and I’m possibly playing too tentatively. Something I need to fix anyway (and actually live in one place long enough to get a stable Internet connection to play MTGO!)

One of the rules about lessons is that there are always more lessons to learn.

GP: Turin 2006, GP: Stockholm 2007

I had atrocious Sealed pools for both of these. Stone cold piles. This is where it’s easy to do the “man, I got dumped on and could do nothing” whine.

In Turin, Raph Levy rebuilt my pile into something serviceable in approximately one-twelfth of the time I’d taken agonising over it. I had to sacrifice every first game, but was able to come back fighting after boarding. Unfortunately, I ran into a Simic Sky Swallower at an inopportune time.

By Stockholm I’d learnt, and went for a solid two-color beatdown deck with a good curve. I fought all the way to the last round before timing out in a draw that eliminated me.

Yes, ultimately on both attempts I was unsuccessful, but I was a damn sight closer than “OMG, what a pile, 0-2 let’s click the drop box please.”

There is a luck element to Magic, but more importantly you have to be able to spot where you can create the opportunities to be lucky.

PT: Yokohama 2007

Having access to a fantastic deckbuilder (Stuart Wright) is important, but don’t throw all of the weight onto them, and also recognise they aren’t infallible. If you’re coming to a PT from the UK there’s an easy temptation to just sit back and go with whatever Stuart comes up with. I’m sure in every team there is a Stuart Wright. Just because these guys are better at building the decks doesn’t mean they don’t need help from time to time. You also need to recognise when they go wrong, and either pull things around or plot a different course.

For this one I compounded rather than alleviated the problem by mistaking Stuart’s complicated deck for control. He got flooded a lot because I convinced him it should have extra land, and I played with essentially a glorified Sealed deck by adding a random Draining Whelk and Brine Elemental.

And the obvious deck, Blue/Black Teachings, which no one on our team really ran with because it was the obvious deck, went on to win the whole thing.

Don’t forget the obvious deck. Most of the time it wins.

PT: San Diego 2007

Moving along…

Lachmann and Van Lunen bruised a lot of egos by showing that a random format is not necessarily as random as people might think. It’s all about putting the work in.

UK Nationals 2007

You know that “obvious deck” thing. Sometimes you should just play it.

Gruul. It’s so obvious.

Yeah, but it doesn’t screw up much and wins a lot of games. You don’t need your decks to be fancy, you just need them to win.

And we’re back to present day.

I’ve still got Valencia and Worlds to come. There have been some lessons learnt, some forgotten, and plenty more still to learn.

I’m going to have to go away for a while, but fear not.

I will return.


Thanks for reading,