Ideas Unbound – Good Play versus Best Deck

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Thursday, May 20th – Patrick Chapin famously pointed out that “tight technical play decides more games of Magic than all other factors combined.” Given this, how does waiting until the very last minute to pick a deck make any kind of sense? Playing a good deck well will get you much farther than playing the ‘best’ deck sloppily.

“What are you playing at National Qualifiers?”

“I don’t know… it’s the actual Jungle Weaver. Ask me tomorrow morning.”

Is anyone else as confused as I am about how routine the above conversation is among Magic players before a tournament?

Gavin Verhey left my house at 2am last night, having just decided on a deck to play at for the “local” National Qualifier tournament. I use the term “local” loosely; the Qualifier was in Tacoma, which is about an hour south of where we live in Seattle. Gavin had to be in Tacoma at nine in order to battle, so he basically made his deck choice about six hours before go time. You might think this qualifies as a last-minute deck choice, but Gavin has been known to cut even closer to the wire; it’s not that uncommon for him to pick a deck during the three-hour drive from Seattle to Portland before a PTQ, or even after he reaches the site itself. There was a PTQ in Portland the week before National Qualifiers. I woke up to a text message from Gavin asking if I could procure Kaleidostones and Prophetic Omens for the Turbo-Fog deck he had selected at some ungodly hour on Friday night because his car had hit traffic and he would be late to the site.

Okay, so maybe he sent me to ask around the room for commons in order to spare himself the humiliation of doing so himself (do you know anyone who brings random Rise commons to PTQs? Trust me when I say you do not.)* but, like, really. My mind is blown when people cheerfully audible from decks they have been tuning for days or weeks to some new brew the night before a tournament. I mean, sure, sometimes Gerry Thompson has just broken the format in half and you should play his deck sight unseen, but the reality of most Constructed formats is that there are a number of decks that are reasonable choices and that playing your particular deck well will have much more of an impact than selecting an ostensibly perfect deck. Don’t switch decks at the last minute to eke out some miniscule amount of percentage on deck against the field; it will almost certainly cost you more percentage when you sit down to actually play Magic.

For example: I lent a friend of mine a Counterbalance deck for a local Legacy tournament. My friend is pretty good; he’s played in multiple Pro Tours and has cashed some Grand Prix tournaments. He got blown out by a UGR Threshold deck after multiple Wastelands blew his manabase into oblivion. It wasn’t until a few days later that he realized he should have been using Trinket Mage to tutor up Pithing Needle to fight Wasteland instead of merely getting redundant Sensei’s Divining Tops. Having a resilient manabase is fairly important against Threshold, and just fetching basics to avoid Wasteland doesn’t cut it if they aggressively attack one of your splash colors. My friend was more or less aware of this, but didn’t recognize the need to use Needle to fight one of Threshold’s core plans.

This argument is fairly hard to win. “You aren’t good enough to change decks at the last minute and figure out your strategy on the fly.” The thing is, most people have an inflated opinion of their skill level. Even more awkward, most of the people I talk to about last-minute audibles are legitimate ringers; certainly no one is ever surprised to see Gavin Verhey or Alex West in the Top 8 of a PTQ. It’s not that unreasonable for them to shrug, pick up a deck, and cruise through a tournament with it on the strength of their skill.

The thing is, I lose most of my matches because I make mistakes, not because I didn’t switch decks the night before a tournament. I can’t really see myself making fewer mistakes if I, you know, switch decks the night before a tournament.

There is a new game store on the east side of Seattle. (Dragon’s Lair, on 20th and 148th in Bellevue; check it out if you live in the area.) Gavin and I went a tournament there to celebrate Dragon’s Lair’s grand opening. We met up with Zac Hill, who had taken off his (robe and) Wizard hat and was looking to do some unsanctioned brawling. Because Zac spends most of his time in the future, he wasn’t quite up to speed with Rise Standard. He borrowed Blue-White-Red Planeswalkers from perennial good man Joe Bono and started battling. I was playing Blue-White Tap Out, and we played in one of the later rounds. Now, even when Zac isn’t intimately familiar with a format, he is still very good at Magic. He was able to quickly and accurately analyze the matchup, and determined that Divination and Spreading Seas would allow him to hit his land drops more consistently, and that if he aggressively went after my Everflowing Chalices with Oblivion Ring that he would both avoid blowouts involving All is Dust and be able to stay slightly ahead of me on mana. This was more or less accurate, and while his draw was better than mine and I was basically unable to ever find a Jace, he won two fairly close games.

However, even with his awareness of the most important strategic variables in the matchup, Zac found himself making subtle tactical errors simply due to his unfamiliarity with his deck. At dinner after the tournament, Zac said that he found himself making several mistakes involving improper sequencing or using the wrong card to answer a threat because he had never experienced certain interactions until they happened during the tournament. For example, in one game, he held up two mana for Negate. I played Tectonic Edge and destroyed one of his untapped lands, then played some planeswalker. Afterwards, Zac said that even a moderate amount of testing would have revealed those interactions, and he would’ve made his mistakes in testing as opposed to punting during the actual tournament.

Patrick Chapin famously pointed out that “tight technical play decides more games of Magic than all other factors combined.” Given this, how does waiting until the very last minute to pick a deck make any kind of sense? Playing a good deck well will get you much farther than playing the ‘best’ deck sloppily. For Pro Tours, sure, edge on deck is vital because of the number of rounds and the higher level of competition and the fact that a little tech goes a long way in relatively unexplored formats, but at the PTQ level, you can get a ton of mileage by just making fewer mistakes than your opponents. Don’t sabotage one of your major edges by giving yourself the opportunity to make more mistakes by playing an unfamiliar deck.

And now, for things that are awkward: for all of my lambasting of Gavin for not picking a deck until the morning of National Qualifiers, he still, you know, qualified for Nationals. When I told Gavin I was writing this article and was there anything he’d like to say, his response was something along the lines of “Make sure you point out who has the chips.”

Yeah, okay. Gavin wants it on record that he cashed GP: Houston with Conley Woods‘ Guess Who deck featuring Ninja of the Deep Hours and Spellstutter Sprite after picking it up the night before, then won a PTQ with the same deck the next week after audibling away from Dark Depths on site, and then qualified for Nationals after picking up GerryT’s Naya deck at midnight the night before the tournament.

Further, Gavin is no stranger to iterating infinite playtest games and playing a well-honed deck at a PTQ; this strategy hasn’t been working out too well for him lately. I argued that maybe if he would just let me burn all of his Howling Mines and force him to play real decks that maybe he’d enjoy some success, but he declined and his apartment is too disorganized for me to find the Mines without his help. Gavin feels that people shouldn’t just move in on a deck two weeks before a PTQ and be afraid to audible when the time is right. I’ll let Gavin elaborate later if he wishes; he mentioned the possibility of a rebuttal article, and I don’t want to steal too much of his thunder. As far as I can tell, he thinks that edge on deck is more important than I do, and I think that people are worse at picking up decks and playing them than he does.

I also want to mention that even though this entire article was basically based around calling out Gavin and delivering beats, he is still a total master and extremely good man, as evidenced by him qualifying for Nationals and sort of defeating the entire point of the article. Gavin: Maybe we can just do actual testing going forward? Sort of like having your cake and eating it too?

I know that the amount of barning that has occurred in the writing of this article has been pretty ludicrous; I mean, I should probably just head back to the old family farm and begin planting corn, but this is the last one, I swear. There was a Magic Show episode a while back where Zac Hill and Richard Feldman were talking about this, and I found one of Richard’s comments particularly poignant: “Somebody watching this is going ‘yeah, there was this one time when I picked up this deck at this PTQ and I won that sucker.’ That’s a good way to go to the Pro Tour once.”

Me, I want to go back.

Max McCall
max dot mccall at gmail dot com

* Gavin, you still owe me for the pound of flesh the dealers took for that stuff.