Hurting Cats

And so I ask you, the Magic community, a critical question that has never been answered in Magic before or since: What makes a team win? Help me find one of the core fundamentals of Magic that the Lucky Seven never answered.

When I worked at Borders Books and Music, we were famed for our computer book section. Part of that was me; I went to great pains to make sure the books were shelved right and organized perfectly.

But a large part of it was Carla.

Carla was the woman who lived in Ann Arbor who chose our computer books for us. I had never actually met her, but I saw her handiwork on a daily basis; every afternoon at two o’clock, another twelve cartons of eight-hundred page tomes arrived, delivered promptly by backache-prone UPS drivers. Me? My job was shelving them. Every so often, I’d get fifty copies of some crap book that I would stare at in disbelief, wondering,”Who the hell’s gonna buy that?”

As it turns out, everyone. Carla was invariably right.

I spoke with book salesmen, and Carla’s ability to pick out trends was legendary; she had singlehandedly revamped Borders and made it the #1 computer book seller in the nation. Publishers lived and died at her whim. If Carla didn’t like a book, there was a good chance it might get cancelled – and not just because she wasn’t going to buy it…

Because if Carla didn’t like it, it wasn’t going to sell.

I did my job well, and Carla eventually called to congratulate me on my increased sales; she had a raspy voice that sounded like she smoked a carton and a half a day. (I later discovered she was a wisp of a woman who never smoked and rarely drank.) Eventually, a job opened up in Ann Arbor – a job at the corporate headquarters, which was the dream of every underpaid clerk – and Carla fought hard to get it for me.

I moved to Ann Arbor, where Carla taught me everything she knew.

And here’s the kicker:

She knew squat about computers.

I assumed that she was a techno-whiz who could build C3PO on her lunch break; as it turns out, I taught her some tricks on email forwarding. She could use Windows, but that was about it. Advanced Networking? Nope. UNIX programming? Not a clue. Object-oriented programming? She barely knew a C from a C++.

But Carla understood sales. She knew what people wanted, and she knew how to read trends. She didn’t have to know how PERL worked to know that PERL was a web programming language, the web was becoming popular, and if she wanted to be ahead of this trend she’d damn well better start pushing PERL books to the people who made websites.

I learned a lot from Carla. And I took that with me to StarCity.

My appointment to editorship at StarCity was controversial at the time. Conventional logic said that to edit a site, you needed a pro: Someone like Kusumoto or Flores, someone who understood tech. And several name pros, some of whom have gone on to found their own Magic sites, interviewed for the position.

But I knew the truth: It wasn’t tech that would rule the day; it was writing and editing. Despite its ups and downs in my tenure, StarCity’s always held the most interesting writers, valuing entertainment over tech. Where else do you have the issues wars that flare up? Where else could you have seen a Rizzo blossom and die? Where else do you get weirdo things like Anne Forsythe’s writings on being a Magic wife, or stories of Prime Minister urinary contacts, or Toby’s dog taking a dump?

We didn’t need pros. We needed writers. And I didn’t need to be good.

We were wrong.

I suck.

I suck big dripping moose weenie. I suck more than women who live at truck stops. My DCI rating has never topped 1800, and my knowledge of Constructed is abysmal. Oh, I can pull out the occasional win in Limited if I don’t get disconnected on Magic Online… But I haven’t played a Type 2 match in the past eight months.

And here’s the thing:

I’m not proud of it.

I was supposed to put the little”Heh” there – the joke about”Yeah, I suck, but don’t we all?” The fact that we’re all scrubs means that it’s okay! Enjoyment is more important than winning!

Rizzo raised sucking to an art, but even he was wrong.

There is a time and place to suck, and I cherish those moments: Sucking around the living room table as you play multiplayer is absolutely okay. Sucking when you’re playing casual Magic with your pals while you drink a beer? Everything it should be. Magic needs to have places where it’s not always about strategy, or crushing your opponents in a turn, or playing with a stone face to keep your opponents from getting one up on you.

Magic needs fun. I’m never going to stop publishing fun.

But there is no fun in Type 2.

I see a lot of fun decks for Type 2, but you know what? If you’re restricting yourself to a format that only has maybe one-sixth of all the cards that have ever been printed, you’d damn well better not suck. If you’re going to offer up a deck in Type 2, it better beat Zevatog – or at least have good enough matches elsewhere to make up for the autoloss.

I’ve been letting a lot of people suck in serious formats… And that’s wrong.

I’m the editor of this site and I don’t know how to play Type 2 – and that is shameful.*

Carla was partially right – I don’t have to be a real pro to run this site. For one thing, there is no real tech out there anyway; if you’re trying to get better by reading Magic articles, even ones you pay for, you’re fooling yourself. You can scope the metagame and you can copy decklists… But you’ll never be ahead of the curve.

I’m the most egotistical son of a bitch in Magic today, folks, and I’ll tell you this: If I discovered the hand grenade of the format, the absolute card combo that nobody else noticed, I would not write about it.

I’d play it, and I’d win, and then I’d write my article.

If I wouldn’t do it, then who would?

Finding tech online is an illusion.

Nobody, except for amateurs looking to make their names, is going to publish a fully-tuned deck that beats everything. With rare exceptions, nobody’s going to say anything that’s not blazingly obvious to good players. There is never going to be anything like the Dojo ever again. Magic writing does, and always will, suck.

But I can stop the bad articles from getting through. Carla may not have had to understand PERL, but I’m going to have to learn the language well enough to realize the obvious things that everyone else laughs at, and never let it on here again. And there’s only way I can do that ….

Get better.

Now here’s where I got stopped: How do I get better?

Oh, sure, Flores is right about the pioneers of Magic. They definitely gave us the foundations for today’s Magic…

What? That was five years ago?


Well, I’m sure there’s been a lot of groundbreaking articles from pros since then….


Wow. Great stuff and all, and I’m happy, but um, say guys… What have you done for me lately?

Not that I expect you to help a brother out, though. Once cash entered the equation and the internet brought you all together, your rising tide lifted everyone else’s boats; every time you published real tech, everyone was listening to you and it cost you money. Fair enough. Mike, I love ya like a brother,** but would you really publish a gem like”Who’s The Beatdown?” these days?

I’m not so sure.

And you know what? I wouldn’t blame you at all if you didn’t.

So what do we have left?

We have the basic concepts of Magic, and we have what seems to be a consensus on how to get better:

1) Play a lot.

2) With good players.

Which leads, unerringly, to conclusion #3:

3) Get on a team, where you play a lot with players who, if not good, will get better together.

Now here is where the pros have failed us; how do you form a team?

I’ve been on three teams in my life, and one of them doesn’t count. The second team, Team Prize Support, playtested three times a week… But we all had our favorite decks, so it was always”MachineHead vs. CounterRebels” night. Nobody wanted to switch. We fine-tuned our decks against each other, but unfortunately David did not face seven straight rounds of CounterRebels at the Alaskan Regionals, and as a result he tanked. Me? I lost to two decks we had never tested against, either.

And that’s way too common. I see a lot of teams, but the organization is lacking. They seem to follow a specific trend:

1) Get people together, form cool name.

2) Playtest with decks that everyone likes.

3) Download netdeck, play a few games against it, panic that it’s smashing them and their builds

4) Everyone switches to netdeck at last moment

5) Everyone loses in tourney.

Problem #1: There are a lot of teams out there, but most of them are losing.

The other team I was on, Team Slut (“We draft with anyone”) was basically an ego team; as some of the better players in Anchorage, we’d money draft against whoever was willing to go against us. (Highlight of the drafts: Sheldon Menery passing a Spiritmonger, even though one of his colors was green, because he didn’t want the hassle of adding black this late. We smashed him with a Cloaked Spiritmonger.)

Problem #2: Most teams have less organization than recently-decapitated chickens.

I knew that I wanted to try to get ahead of the curve and break OBC with Judgment. And so I asked myself: How do you form a team that wins?

I came up with the following issues that any good team would have to know – not just speculate about quietly, but know – before they could be effective:


How do you decide which net decks form a part of your play gauntlet?

How do you figure out which rogue decks are worth in-depth testing? In other words, we have five zillion potential archetypes for Odyssey Block: Quiet Speculation decks, Firecat Blitz decks, Solitary Confinement decks, G/W decks, and 4,999,996 others. Do you build all of them? If so, where do you find the time? If not, how do you determine which ones get the handwave?

And related to this, what’s the minimum number of matches you can play before they become valid results? (In other words, is a 4-1 result conclusive that U/G sucks against Psychatog, or does it have to be more like 8-2? Or 13-4?) And I repeat: If you build all the potential rogue decks, where do you find the damn time?

How many matches do you play before you start tuning the deck? If it’s a low number, how do you trust the end results?

What sort of database do you build to track results… Or do you even bother with numbers at all, going on gut? What is the place of data warehousing in professional Magic?

How do you ensure that you don’t fine-tune your decks to netdecks exclusively, then get smashed by the all-Cleric kiddie.dec? How do you handle the rogue factor?

How do you figure out your anticipated metagame?

What’s the most effective method of testing sideboard cards?


How many matches should you shoot for a month? (Yes, I know: As many as you can get. But that’s not helpful when you’re trying to motivate people to hit a goal.)

Do you allow takebacks when you play, so that both players can learn, or do you play hard to prepare them for tourney play?

Do you both play with hands face up for the first few games so both players can critique each other’s play… Or do you trust them?

Do you play with generic lands that tap for any style mana when you’re in your initial stages, fixing the mana specifically later, or do you try to start with the mana bases immediately?

Player Issues:

How do you assign decks so that the decks nobody likes to play don’t get ignored? At the end of every season, some forgotten archetype comes back because a deck had temporarily pushed it aside… Sligh lost to Trix, but won against Miracle Gro. When Trix fell by the wayside, Sligh started making a comeback. How do you prevent losing your eye on the old ball and finding the old decks that are ripe for returns?

How do you assign decks, period? If Johnny wants to tinker with his U/W deck, is it right to stop him?

How do you stop rampant tweakers? You know the kind – the ones who come back every two days and say,”Well, I’ve swapped ten cards in my main deck and three in my sideboard again. It just wasn’t working. Now play against my entirely new deck for the third time this week.”

How do you keep people focused on improving existing archetypes? Sure, Judgment’s out and everyone wants the new cards. How do you put their nose to the grindstone and force them to try to build a post-Judgment monoblack? (Okay, trick question, there isn’t one… But how do you know before you try?)

So I went on the net, to see what I could find on organization and teambuilding. Surely someone would have shared by now, right? All these fine writers?

Here’s the best of what I found:

“Testing is VERY secret,” admitted one pro, a very famous writer, who shall go nameless.”Everyone comes up with their own methods of testing, but really it depends on the strengths of the team members… But if I were to talk about it, I’d be cut off from my own group in a heartbeat. And these tours are money. I can’t afford to write articles on it.”

Why StarCity Is A Scrub Site

There’s nothing out there on testing. Zip. Zippo.

And so I ask you, the Magic community, a critical question that has never been answered in Magic before or since:

What makes a team good?

I’d like you to share your results on what you did with your team – what worked, what didn’t, what you would have done better… And more importantly, where you finished. Hey, if you have four guys and one qualified, then you’re doing pretty damn well. If not, then maybe you felt good about it, but hey – you sucked.

But even if you sucked, I want to know. I want to hear even what the suck teams did; maybe you all did something wrong, something not immediately obvious… And if I hear from enough failed teams at once, we can pinpoint what that is.

Help me answer these questions. Help me find one of the core fundamentals of Magic that the Lucky Seven never answered. I’ll compile your results into an article later on… And maybe, just maybe, we can all raise each other’s boats.

Email me at [email protected].

Huh? So what am I doing with my team?

Of course I’ll tell you.

One of my goals for creating a team is, of course, to make me not suck… But I also want to pump up StarCity while I’m doing it. With that in mind, I polled some of StarCity’s writers and most zealous readers, then asked them the question:

Who wants to qualify?

They all said,”Ooo! Me!”

I then said: Who wants to do the work?

Many of them then stared at their shoes. (That’s fine; thanks for being honest, folks.)

I looked at the questions above, and decided that since this was an internet team, composed of people scattered throughout the world, we couldn’t all playtest in the same place. That’s fine; the pros do that all the time, so it must be doable. We’d have to playtest online…

But if you really want to do well, you’ll have to play in real life. For one thing, online playtesting is close, but it’s not a real game – it doesn’t psychologically prepare you in the same way. For another thing, since we’ll all be scattered, playing at local tourneys is the only way individual players will be able to scope the metagame.

I decided to call us Team Diaspora, because I liked the feel of it: Sure, it may look like we’re wandering around randomly – but secretly, God’s on our side.

I emailed everyone who had expressed interest, and sent the following email:

Everyone on the team will take two decks: A”good” archetype and a”mediocre” one. We all build the decks we’re assigned as optimal versions and we each, over the course of two months or so, play no less than fifty matches with each of them. (For the record, that’s twelve matches a week… Or two and a half tournaments.)

Why? Three purposes:

1) So each of us becomes the”expert” on a particular style of deck. One of the things that I’ve noticed is that players grow bored with decks and switch around as it suits their style. If you’re really the best with a particular deck, we’ll defer to you when it comes to sideboarding cards and the like – and it forces you to hone a style of playing, which increases your skill.

2) Each of us gets a much better scope on the metagame personally, and knows how to play against other decks. Also, it ensures that we’re all playing regularly.

3) It fills the database.

Oh yes; the database.

I’ll create a database with all the matchups in them, which I’ll find some way to put online. You guys input all of your games into the database, which will have the following:


Your ending life

Opponent’s Deck

His ending life

The card or play that killed you



DCI Rating

If you don’t know his DCI rating, guesstimate from the playskill. All MOL DCI ratings will be dropped by 20% because quite frankly, I haven’t seen a lot of good players on MOL… Me included.

We’ll play for two months to get the idea of what the strongest decks really are, what the good matchups are and aren’t (I’ll run reports), and what can be changed or added in Judgment. I’m a firm believer that you can’t really playtest a deck until you really get bored with it, and the pros seem to concur with that.

Meanwhile, the Mad Genius Deckbuilders of Jarrell and Rieffer will be blatantly plagiarizing their Team Binary deckbuilding skills to create all-new Judgement decks, which we will eventually run up against the playtesting gauntlet to see how it really does at the end of the month. At the end of that month, we will all know the strengths and weaknesses of our”specialty” decks and have a really solid handle of what their strengths and weaknesses are… And then we’ll know what cards in Judgement are optimal to add and subtract. But for now, really immersing ourselves in the Type 2 metagame in a way that we never have before is key.

At the end of Month #2, we then move into Phase 2: Tweaking.

Then we start playing all of the new updated decks against each other and filtering out the suck decks. We also look at the net and see what other decks are making the rounds. That month is spent really, truly, deeply trying to determine what deck is best and tweaking sideboards….

Which brings me to the tenets of the team.


2) EXPERIENCE IS MORE IMPORTANT THAN BOREDOM. Team Binary came up with some classic decks, then switched them all just before the tournament. Will maintains he had some bad luck, but I say that we finalize all decks two weeks before the PTQ and stick with them. Wanna be qualified? We’re not good enough to pick up a deck like Finkel and Budde do. Your deck is your deck.

3) SECRECY IS A WATCHWORD, BUT NOT AN ABSOLUTE. If we find a deck that seems to work all right, then feel free to mention it and maybe give a decklist if it’s not killer. But if we find a hand grenade, we DO keep it quiet. We definitely share strategies for the rough initial backbones of decks we make in the wake of Judgement.

4) WE WRITE BIBLES OF HOW TO PLAY OUR SPECIALTY DECKS, AND POSSIBLY PUBLISH THEM. For an example of what I mean, see my article on last year’s Regionals. These, we also publish, assuming there’s no play secret left untouched.

5) WE ARE GOING TO F**KING WIN. Anyone who isn’t willing to put in the time and effort isn’t going to… But if we play like the pros, with a ton of games per week, we’ll smash this wide open. My goal is to have 50% of our team qualified by the end of the season. Foolish? Perhaps. But I think this team can do it.

If you want to join, send me an email privately, committing to the following things:

1) I wholeheartedly agree with the tenets of Team Diaspora, namely:

– The metagame is so wide-open these days that deep experience with a familiar deck is better than metagame knowledge

– The only way to acquire deep experience is to playtest the hell out of a

deck past the point of boredom

– You are not experienced enough to just pick up a deck and win a PTQ with it

– Real-life play is a much better teacher than online play, and as such I will play in real life whenever possible


2) I will play NO LESS THAN FIFTY MATCHES – matches, not games – with sideboarding per month, and take sufficient notes to input all results into whatever database Ferrett deems fit. Anything less than this, and I will email Ferrett to let him know why and by how much I failed

3) I will write A MINIMUM OF TWO ARTICLES PER MONTH on our current tech for Ferrett, with deep strategy. Even if I am not a good writer, I have faith in Ferrett’s ability to edit the hell out of me.

4) I will take this seriously, and bring the noise.

Seven people took me up on my challenge: Will Rieffer, Jim Grimmett, Carl Jarrell, GP Baglione, Skip Potter, Elliot Fertik, and Bennie Smith. I’ve assigned decks to all of them, created a mailing list, and gone over strategy.

What have I learned so far?

1) KEEPING A GROUP TOGETHER IS LIKE HERDING CATS. As expected, everyone wanted to go nuts on rogue decks and weirdo decks and whee, look at this! Next to nobody actually wanted to do the drudge work of revamping a rather boring U/G deck.

(Incidentally, that’s the title of this article here: I said to a friend that Team Diaspora was like herding cats and he said, with anger and confusion,”Why would anyone want to hurt cats?”

(I don’t want to hurt cats; I’m just piercing kitten nipples. They’ll thank me for it later, when the Goth kitties come a-knockin’.)

2) TESTING IS GOING SLOWER THAN ANTICIPATED. I’ve gotten few results in, and I suspect I’m going to have to crack the whip soon to get more matches in for everyone. Playtesting is boring – and hey, even I’ve been slacking this week. (Then again, I’ve been working fourteen-hour days, so at least I have an excuse.)

3) IT’S AN EXERCISE IN WILLPOWER. A good friend of mine, who did run a successful team once upon a time, told me that a good team was an extension of your personality:”I need to a win a Pro Tour, and I need your help to do it.” He said the best teams came from driven men.

I’m driven, baby.

How about you?

Signing off,

The Ferrett

[email protected]

The Here Edits This Here Site Here Guy

* – Although I find it fascinating that I decide to up my skill level in the same week that Scott Johns falls off the gravy train and Andy Stokinger pulls a top 45 finish at PT: Nice. I think there’s room for three editors in the Magic community: A prominent scrub, an almost-pro, and a pro. Are we all playing Musical Chairs?

** – Don’t get me wrong; I like Flores, I really do, even if he apparently doesn’t like me – the man’s a fine writer, he’s given a lot to the community, and I’ll always consider him one of the Good Guys no matter what. I got a flurry of angry emails after his article on StarCity defending me, which I didn’t publish because I am sicker of Rizzo than even Flores was. Still, my favorite comment on Mike’s article was from David Bruce, who essentially said,”You say you find it hard to take Ferrett seriously. So why, when he writes an article called Rizzo Died For Your Sins, did you take him so seriously?”