Innovations – The Most Important Magic Lessons of the Year, Part 1

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Monday, December 1st – In this introspective and illuminating article, Patrick “The Innovator” Chapin looks back at the timeless lessons he learned in the first half of his Pro Player journey. He also stokes the fires in the increasingly incendiary “Cruel Ultimatum or No” debate for Five-Color Control…

While the times and cards may change, some things never do. It seems that there are levels of enlightenment in this game that we are constantly uncovering. These lessons we learn stick with us and are useful years after we learn them, even when specific contexts alter through time.

The lessons I have learned about Magic have varied greatly over the years, but a constant theme has been the eternal search for understanding. This game is so complex, with so many subgames going on all the time. I may not always know what I still have to learn, but I will always seek greater and greater awareness.

It is this pursuit of The Truth that drives me, that continues to push me in my quest to better my understanding of The Physics of Magic even after all these years.

I have been playing Magic for longer than most, and would like to share the most important lesson with regards to Magic that I’ve learned each year over these past 15 years. I can’t promise that all of these things will change your understanding of Magic forever. However, I would imagine that, given the impact these lessons had on me, at least a few may touch you in some way, or at least provide some food for thought.

I imagine these stories will take up more space then I have in one article. I’ll write part 1, and if you guys are interested, I will continue the series immediately.

1993: There is a new kind of game called Magic: The Gathering.

Admittedly, this one is a stretch, but I didn’t get into Magic until 1994, so about the extent of what I learned about the game was that Rider’s Hobby Shop sold a new kind of game. My mom got me a pack of Arabian Nights, but when you only have 8 Magic Cards and no rules, it is hard to get into it.

It was not until the following year, when I suffered a season-ending injury in football, that I found myself looking for something new to occupy my time. Just finding out something as revolutionary and as deep as Magic exists… well, that in and of itself is something great.

1994: I am tempted to say that the greatest understanding I gained was learning the rules, but that is cop-out after my 1993 answer. Also, Magic is a game in which, even to this day, my understanding of the rules is always growing. It is a complex game; with new rules being created every three months, it is not fair to say that I learned the rules in 1994.

I would say the greatest understanding I gained was with regards to deck construction. I had initially acquired a box of Revised and opened the whole thing. After opening bombs like Rock Hydra, Gaea’s Liege, and Veteran Bodyguard, I decided to play R/W/G. I had already been introduced to the concept of playing as few cards as possible, but I was under the impression that a box of cards was a lot, and that I was one of the few people who had enough cards to play a larger deck.

I built a 120-card monster, and struggled at first, as I often didn’t have the right lands for my spells. I also won a game on turn 3 with Channel and Fireball. I realized immediately that I wanted to have that combination come up as often as possible.

The next day, I built a 40 card deck with 7 Channels (we didn’t play tournament legal when we didn’t play in tournaments; we even played for cut ante…). My friends soon insisted we stop playing for ante, and that we moved to tournament legality. In fact, within a week, all of my friends agreed to play tournament legal rules, with ante being optional, depending on the player’s preference.

* When constructing a deck, you should typically play as few cards as possible, as every card you play comes with an added cost: whenever you draw it, you are not drawing the best card in your deck.

1995: This is the year that I started getting seriously into tournaments. I had played in smaller tournaments in ’94, but by ’95 I was travelling to compete in tournaments ranging from Type 1 to Type 2 to Sealed Deck (the last two were new formats).

I experienced tournament success immediately, partially on account of taking the deckbuilding aspect more seriously than a lot of my peers. The formula I devised for approaching Constructed formats was to find some card or card interaction that I liked, and to abuse and build around that. In a word: synergy. I had discovered that sometimes card combinations led to a power greater than the sum of the parts.

I had already experienced success with Channel and Fireball (eventually going on to splash Demonic Consultation in my R/G Type 2 deck, just to set up the combo). One of my favorite cards during that time period was Black Vise, and I sought to abuse it as often as possible.

For Type 1, the primary format we played back then, I built a Nethervoid land destruction deck that killed with Vises and Factories. In Type 2, I played the R/G “Vise Age” deck splashing Black for Consult, with Vises being a big part of the quick damage (and the only way to really keep Necropotence, another strategy I helped develop locally, in check…).

The synergy inherent in land destruction demonstrates this point quite well. Sinkhole is a powerful spell, sure, but when you start combining it with Stone Rain, Strip Mine, and Icequake, you start talking about going from annoying an opponent to making an opponent unable to play anything at all.

* Synergy can be more important than power. One great road to deck construction is to find a card or card interaction you like and build around it, seeking to abuse it as fully as you can. Good stuff decks rarely take as full advantage of their cards as decks with synergy.

1996: This was a crazy year for me, Magically. I had stuck with my ChannelFireball roots and pioneered combo in Vintage many times. When Necropotence had come out, I experimented with Necro-Mirror Universe combo.

When Alliances entered the area, I built around 4 Fastbond, 4 Diminishing Returns, 4 Black Vise, 4 Lightning Bolt, 4 Chain Lightning, and so on, as well as the usual restricted cards, plus 4 Strip Mines.

Mirage changed Type 1 forever. Mystical Tutor ended the era of Keeper/The Deck dominating Type 1. While those strategies were still viable, Mystical Tutor took the Combo archetype from a mere curiosity to a tournament-dominating force that continues to define the format to this day.

With Mystical Tutor, we could actually access our restricted cards with enough regularity to build around them, instead of using them merely as over-powered highlights. It was now possible to access unbelievable effects like Time Twister, Ancestral Recall, Time Walk, and Balance at will.

When you combine this unprecedented library manipulation with the mana available at the time (4 Mana Vault, 4 Mana Crypt, Hurkyl’s Recall) it was easy to play a deck of almost all mana and card draw. You would just make mana and draw cards until you Kaervek’s Torched your opponent for 20.

You can see why I would be tempted to say that the biggest lesson I learned was to always look for the degenerate combo deck. While it is true that this is a strategy I have held on to throughout my career, that is not the biggest part of Magic I learned that year.

1996 was the first year of the Pro Tour. My first PT was that year, in Dallas. I played in one PTQ, winning with a four-color control deck that revolved around Thawing Glaciers. I tested with Eric Taylor for that event; ahh, the good old days…

I initially worked on a U/R Counter Hammer deck that was based on Zur’s Weirding. Eventually, I gave it up as it could not beat the W/G/R “Untargetable” style decks that were gaining popularity. I was going to play edt’s U/W/R Browse deck (that he piloted to something like a 2-3-4 record).

The night before the tournament, I was doing some last-minute testing with my friend Andrew Wills. He was trying some sort of CounterPost deck. I had picked up a Sligh deck that we had talked about, but had never tested. Back then, Goblin decks were a joke that you used to describe little kids’ deck ideas. The idea of a Mono-Red Aggro deck had never been used on the Pro Level.

The name “Sligh” came from Paul Sligh, who had won a PTQ with a deck designed by Jay Schneider (originally called Geeba) that featuring such breathtaking synergies as Dwarven Trader and Goblins of the Flarg (he should have replaced the Dwarven Traders with Dwarven Ponies, so as to fulfill the Homelands requirement but alleviate the Goblins’ drawback).

Wills and I were just playing some random games to get a feel for the CounterPost deck. We knew that CounterPost, Necro, and R/W/G would all be popular strategies. A funny thing happened, though. I won all of the games.

At first, we had a laugh about it. Then we determined it must just be a bad match-up for CounterPost. Then we started to wonder…

We decided to test the Sligh deck against Necro. Sure enough, we seemed to beat it. This was crazy. We laid out the deck and “Innovated It.”

Some interesting “Innovations:”

– 1 Ball Lightning. No one else had suggested Ball Lightning (to the best of my knowledge), but I suggested it jokingly because I happened to have a The Dark Ball Lightning in my collection. I am pretty sure if I had owned 2 The Dark versions, that would have been the number.

Why only 1? Believe it or not, it was because we always won when we drew it, so we “never needed two…” Yeah, theory wasn’t as advanced back then.

– 2 Deathspark. Our solution to Pump Knights. This card was unreal.

– 2 Orcish Librarian. This guy was unbelievable. The best part about him wasn’t even the never-ending supply of Pillages or Bolts, it was that no one would kill him, instead saving their Plow for my “good creatures.” Orcish Librarian paid for my college education.

We scrambled to build two copies of the deck. The hardest card to find was Orcish Artillery. Let’s just say that not a lot of dealers were walking around with those.

The next day, things got interesting. Andrew and I were the only two piloting the deck, and both of us started out 4-0. Andrew ended up hitting several R/G/W Maro-Geddon decks in a row, knocking him out of contention for Top 8. I, however, went undefeated in Swiss, knocking out a couple of Necro decks, a R/G/W Geddon deck, a Prison deck, a Turbo Balance deck, and several CounterPost decks.

I ended up finishing third, falling to a Mono-W Prison deck piloted by Jeremy Baca. For an interesting story from that match, check out “10 Games of Magic I’ve Lost and How They Can Help You Win.”

What is the point of this? First of all, as Chris Pikula can tell you, this is Dallas. It is always a fine time to remember Dallas.

Ahh, Dallas.

More importantly, I learned that Magic could be more than a hobby to me, more than just some game I played. I already knew I loved it and that I wanted to spend as much time playing it as possible, but the possibility of traveling around the world, winning scholarship money and cash prizes, competing against the likes of Mike Long, Mark Justice, and Brian Weissman, opened up a whole new world to me.

* Magic can be far more than just a game if you want it to be, and in order to come up with the best new strategies, you have to be willing to try the crazy stuff, even if it means people laughing at you and making fun of your Mono-Red Aggro deck (who could ever win a tournament with a Mono-Red Aggro deck?!).

1997: This was another critical year for my Magic Career. I was now traveling to all the Pro Tours, competing as an adult, despite being only 16. One important lesson I learned this year was to be wary of throwing all of your testing out the window the night before the tournament.

The night before Pro Tour: Paris, I was doing some last-minute testing with Mike Long in his hotel room. We had what I feel was the best version of ProsBloom for that tournament. Mike was committed to playing it, even though I had a B/R anti-Bloom deck that was performing well against Bloom.

Word had spread around the tournament site about the Bloom Deck, and a question asked at the player’s meeting (can you cast Infernal Contract while you are at zero life, which you could back then, as you could pay half of zero easily and back then you didn’t die immediately) released the secret tech that turned ProsBloom from playable to format-defining.

I was still very inexperienced as far as Pro Tours went, and imagined that everyone would play Bloom. I audibled to B/R anti-Bloom, despite testing entirely with Bloom and having the best version. There is a time and a place to audible, but most of the time that people audible to decks they haven’t tested, they are probably hurting themselves.

If you have spent a lot of time preparing for a tournament, practicing with just one deck, audibling to a deck you have no experience with leaves you without the advantage of the subtle understanding one gains after weeks of playtesting. It is not that you never play your second string quarterback, it is just that you better be pretty sure you can’t play your starting quarterback.

A true audible, like in football, involves changing the play when you see the defense. In Magic, you may show up to a Pro Tour like Berlin, see that your deck has no chance against ELVES! As such, you switch plays to Zoo, another deck you had tested with, but not your first choice. In football, when a quarterback calls an audible, he is not having his offense run a play they haven’t practiced. He just has them run the “back-up choice.”

If you use the audible as a tactical move to switch from one deck you have experience with to another, you will tend to get better results than if you are constantly switching to decks you haven’t practiced. Now it is true that different players require different levels of practice, as do different decks, but this is a general guideline that would help a lot of players who have a habit of switching deck come tournament time.

The truth is, you may be switching into a worse deck or a better one, but you are certainly switching into one you have less experience with. This makes it a risky gamble, one that players take far too often.

The day of the tournament, I didn’t play against a single ProsBloom deck, instead losing round after round to random decks, almost all of which would have been cakewalks for ProsBloom.

As important a lesson as that was, I learned something even more important preparing for the next Pro Tour, NY

I learned how to draft.

The reason I told the story above was that it is actually useful, whereas I don’t know how to sum up what I know about draft in a single article, let alone a paragraph. I already knew how to draft decently, but I had a strong grasp on Limited early on, which was such a huge edge back then.

You have to remember, back then, there were about 50 people in the world who weren’t terrible at Limited. Limited PTs were literally the easiest ever. MTGO has changed everything. The 5000th best drafter today is probably better than the 50th best was 10 years ago.

I guess I can distill what I learned about Limited that year into a variety of points, the most notable of which is that it is not enough to simply take good cards in 2 or 3 colors. If you cut a single color, and let the other color be what comes to you, you can set yourself up to reap great benefits in pack 2. If you pick up the signal from the person to your right, you can continue to reap the benefits in pack 3.

In NY, I forced Blue, cutting it as hard as I could, often picking weaker Blue cards over stronger cards in other colors, just to try to lock up the Blue from my neighbors. The format was Fifth-Fifth-Visions (Hell of a format, huh?) and I ended up making Top 8. Man, I remember when I was actually considered good at drafting. People are so much better today, it is crazy.

This idea can still be applied today, even in a format as unusual as Shards. Remember, your picks have a residual impact that you will see when the person to your left makes decisions based on what you have given him. If you take the weaker card at times so as to move towards the deck you want, you will see benefits later.

Sometimes, you will even have a choice between a playable that is not your colors and a non-playable that is. If you take the unplayable on-color card, you are only helping your neighbor marginally, which then only hurts you a fraction as much as it helps him, but more greatly encourages him to play that color. If you are trying to get your neighbor to play Naya, not Bant, because you are Esper, then you should consider encouraging him to go the way you want.

Let me know if these stories were useful or interesting. I am out for this week, but one last thing I want to mention is with regards to Cruel Ultimatum. I have a well known position in favor of the card, and many are using it to great success, but there are still some who have not approached the card correctly, and even many who do use it don’t take full advantage of what it offers.

Cruel Ultimatum is so good against decks like WW, Demigod, and Five-Color Control that it lets you put more anti-Faeries cards in your Five-Color Control deck than you normally would be able to get away with. Even the people who play Cruel now could stand to reimagine their decks in a more anti-Fae manner. It doesn’t have to be a bad match-up.

The biggest reason some good players don’t like Cruel Ultimatum is because it generates such a powerful effect that it destroys the fun of building an incremental advantage. Magic is a game, and a lot of players don’t perform as well if they aren’t having fun. For some people, the most fun part of Magic is building a small incremental advantage over time that inevitably moves you closer to victory.

For me, I prefer winning the highest percentage of games, even if it means blowing people out sometimes where it is academic to continue. That is really what it comes down to. Some people wouldn’t enjoy a game of Magic in which they had cast Cruel Ultimatum, as it causes all of the work you did to build a little card advantage or whatever… well, it causes it to all look trivial. This isn’t fun to some people. They want each move to give them a percentage point here, a percentage point there, so that their victory is the symphony of all of their cards and plays.

I just want to win.

As such, if there is an instrument I can play that will accomplish this feat, I will do so, even if it tends to drown out the rest of the instruments.

Cruel Ultimatum is not a “Win More.”

It is a card that makes you win, more.

It is a win condition much the same way as Gifts Ungiven. You may win when you play it, but that doesn’t mean it didn’t help you establish control.

It is not just a win condition, though. Cruel Ultimatum is a good weapon to use to stabilize a game. Believe it or not, I actually do want Cruel Ultimatum in my opener in several match-ups, particularly WW and Demigod Red. Knowing that I have it and can sculpt the game towards it is huge.

I am going to continue to try to drive the point home, because not playing Cruel Ultimatum in Five-Color Control is like not playing Arcbound Ravager in Affinity. It is just wrong, with both theory to support it as well as countless tournaments worth of evidence. I see some people buying into the negative perspective of a few players who suffer from an addiction to incremental advantage.

I have a job here at StarCityGames.com, and that is to inform (and entertain) the reader to the best of my ability. I truly believe that, at least today, the most useful way I can contribute is to fight this fight. It is not just because people will win more with Cruel Ultimatum, etc, though they will. It is because I learn from my fellow writers and would hope that I can in some way help contribute to their theoretical game as well, and in this case, I have something to share.

I come up with a lot of crazy ideas, and a lot of my deck preferences are not for everyone. However, this is not about preference anymore than it would be to “prefer” to not play Ravager in your Affinity deck. I believe that the people who don’t like Cruel Ultimatum in Five-Color Control fall under one of three camps.

One, they may be addicted to incremental advantage and Cruel Ultimatum is “too much.” (Some people didn’t like Necro for the same reason.)

Two, they may not have figured out how to make it work yet. To these people, I would say, do some research, do some playtesting, and practice playing the deck. An awful lot of people are winning with it, so clearly it is possible to make it work.

Finally, they may just not have much experience with the card and are accustomed to following the advice of someone who suffers from one of the above problems. To these players, I implore you, give me the benefit of the doubt on this one. I personally would benefit if more players didn’t play Cruel Ultimatum, as it is insane in the mirror. However, in the interest of helping SCG readers as best I can, I promise you: Cruel Ultimatum is The Truth.

I have been wrong before, many times, no question. Still, I am pretty sure about this one, and when all of the evidence seems to agree with theory… it seems pretty clear cut.

Some players are fond of saying that “the novelty wore off” for Five-Color Control, and “everyone says they beat Five-Color.” To these players, I would remind you that the way Five-Color Control works is that you must constantly evolve and change your deck, as people will obviously be preparing for you. If you come with the same approach you did last month, you will be fighting an uphill battle the whole way.

If players have evolved to beat your Five-Color Control deck, evolve your Five-Color Control deck.

I am out for now, but to preemptively answer the inevitable question in the forums: no, I can’t list my real Five-Color Control deck today. Worlds is in two weeks, and it is vital to have new technology for which people aren’t prepared, should I decide to play Five-Color Control. I have always tried to help fellow Five-Color Control players, even when I can’t supply a final list. I hope that can be enough in this case.

Remember, let me know if I should continue the series immediately. Take care, and thanks again for reading and for commenting; it helps me grow as a writer.

Patrick Chapin
“The Innovator”