Innovations – The Most Important Magic Lessons of the Year, Part 2

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Monday, December 8th – Last week, Patrick “The Innovator” Chapin took us through the beginning of his career in Magic, and shared with us many lessons he’d learned along the way. Today he continues this journey, presenting some solid thoughts on drafting and the benefits of team testing. He also brings us a spicy little Legacy deck…

This is the second part of a series on the most important Magic Lessons I learned in each year of my career. Part 1 can be found here.

When we last left our hero, he was but a wee lad of 17 with stars in his eyes and the world at his feet. The year was 1998. I had graduated from high school and spent most of the summer in Pittsburgh testing with Randy Buehler, Erik Lauer, Mike Turian, Aaron Forsythe, and the rest of the original team CMU (of which I had recently become a member).

We were drafting at the “O” (where we always played and ate incredible amounts of the greatest freedom fries in the country), preparing for Pro Tour: NY ’98. The format was Tempest-Tempest-Stronghold booster draft. We experimented with a variety of strategies, such as Mike Turian forcing G/W and Erik Lauer and his mono-Black phase. However, we eventually we came to realize that U/R Control was the most successful archetype in our drafts.

We worked on perfecting it and began to look to draft the specific deck from the gate. We didn’t just draft the good Blue and Red cards, either. We had specific requirements for what the deck should look like. It was almost as if we had a Constructed deck that we would try to draft each time.

Mike Long refers to this sort of technique in drafting as “The Ultimate Deck.” The idea is that you have an “Ultimate Deck” in mind that is basically what you want to be playing. You then draft cards that fill various roles in that deck. For instance, if you are trying to force R/B aggro in Shards draft, you might decide you want 3-4 two-drop creatures. Since there is not exactly a large supply of these in those colors, you will draft a card like Dregscape Zombies higher than its power level would suggest, in an effort to meet the requirements for your “Ultimate Deck.”

The Ultimate Deck approach basically turns Limited into sort of a variant on Constructed, which for a player such as myself helps a lot, as I am more naturally inclined to think about Magic in terms of Constructed. It is almost like forcing an archetype, but going a step further and actually figuring out ideas such as there should be at least a couple of draw-two spells in your Esper Deck, five pieces of removal, and at least two fatties (or whatever).

For the Te-Te-St format, we began looking to draft a U/R control deck that usually had around 7-9 creatures and lots of buyback spells, including almost always a Mind Games or two (a card so key to the archetype, in our opinions, that we would usually not pass it except for a card like Shock.) We would draft 2-4 counterspells, as many Sifts as we could, any good buyback, a couple of Giants, 2-4 early defenders (such as Wall of Diffusion or Mogg Conscripts), whatever removal we could get (such as Kindle, Lightning Blast, etc), and so on.

Learning about the concept of an Ultimate Deck helped me become a better drafter, as I needed to find new tools to adapt now that drafting was becoming widespread. When I made Top 8 at the Fifth-Fifth-Visions Pro Tour, there were few good drafters in the world, so it wasn’t that tough.

By the time Stronghold was out, everyone drafted. It was much harder to succeed and being able to think about Limited in terms of Constructed was a major breakthrough for me. Drafting to a specific deck instead of just “the good cards in two colors” lead to my Top 8 in the Saga Block Rochester draft the following year in 1999.

If you are trying to work your way up the ladder, but are struggling with draft, consider thinking about the format in terms of what you would like your deck to end up looking like and map out a plan for how to arrive at that deck. This can make your practice more efficient, as you can try your plan and see what things you were able to get easily and which parts of your deck you need to value higher to attain.

Obviously, if you are flexible and can adapt easily you will enjoy more success, but this can be a useful tool for players such as myself that are not as naturally talented at Limited. Even if you are a strong Limited player and can adapt easily, having an Ultimate Deck in mind to guide you can help push you towards more focused decks with a more well thought-out curve and selection.

As I said, the following year I made Top 8 in a Saga-Saga-Saga Rochester draft. Man, I sure miss Rochester drafts. One of the biggest things I learned at that Pro Tour was the value of drafting friendly with your neighbors.

I practiced a ton for that Pro Tour, and determined that I was going to force Black to the death, no matter what, but that I would be willing to give my neighbors any and everything else in an effort to try to cooperate with them.

This was long before Magic Online, so we used software called Netdraft to practice online. I developed a reputation for forcing Black to the death, but being very good about passing bombs in other colors to take mediocre Black cards. I eventually went so far as to first pick first pack take Blood Vassal (basically Scathe Zombies) over Arc Lightning (the best common burn in the set). This statement was especially well heard since the draft was Rochester and my neighbors could see what I was doing.

I would make it so easy for my neighbors to play U/W and R/G that I would often end up with Mono-B or base Black with three people’s worth of Black cards in my pile. This was amazing, as Black was so good that five or six people could easily split it and have the better decks. The best commons in that set were:

10. Blanchwood Treefolk
9. Skittering Skirge
8. Ravenous Skirge
7. Heat Ray
6. Sanctum Custodian
5. Befoul
4. Arc Lightning
3. Expunge
2. Corrupt
1. Pestilence

As a result of my willingness to supply my neighbors with the best cards in all of the other colors, even if it was probable that I would need a second color, I was able to as greatly as possible incentivize them to draft cards of those colors (which were not Black…).

To this day, I am still a typically friendly drafter in individual drafts, as I have found when you draft this way, it slightly helps you and your neighbors. I would much rather help my two neighbors than the other five people at the table by mutual destruction.

Besides, if you make friendly drafting your policy (or at least primary policy), people remember that. It is harder to do this now that all drafts are Booster, but it is still a helpful tip for drafting, in my humble opinion.

I learned other things that year, though, outside of drafting. Just a couple months later, I competing in the Pro Tour: NY that was Saga-Legacy Constructed. They had already banned cards like Time Spiral, Windfall, and Memory Jar, though Tolarian Academy, Tinker, and Stroke of Genius were still legal.

The format was dominated by U/R Tinker/Wildfire decks, with Mono-Green also prevalent. I had tested with Team CMU, as well as the Dead Guys and Jon Finkel. We had decided to try an Uber-Team with some 16 or 17 members.

Uber-Teams always sound like such a good idea… I mean, if some good players is good, then a ton of good players must be great… right?

In reality, Uber-Teams never work out. In practice, not everyone is able to efficiently help the group as no one has all the information to work with, so you end up with many fragmented pictures of the whole. You get such diminishing returns when you include that many players that you actually start getting into the realm of hurting one another.

For instance, many good Americans worked together for a Valencia Testing group last year that totally bombed. Likewise, the CMU-Deadguy-Finkel team failed miserably, considering how much talent was on the team.

They all ended up playing variants on Tinker/Wildfire or Mono-Green, with only myself and Eric Taylor dissenting. Edt had opted to join me in working on a U/G/x Gaea’s Cradle combo deck revolving around Snap, Cloud of Faeries, and Deranged Hermit. I was given a hard time by some of the people on the team for not playing the deck they came up with, but in the end, was the highest finishing player in the group, 11th. (I lost a heartbreaker near the end of Day 2 on account of my deck being stolen.)

The point? Even if your playtest partners see the format differently, you should not be afraid to play the deck you want to play. Also, the big one here is that uber-teams don’t work out. They seem like such a good idea that many top players try them over and over, but so far, none have been very successful. Superstar teams can work, but it is hard to make one come together with 10 or more players.

I also learned to be more careful about keeping an eye on my stuff at a Pro Tour. Obviously, it is hard to account for someone randomly stealing your bag, but it is not that hard to be mindful and keep your eye on everything at all times.

There was a Pro Tour: London that year, and I learned a thing or two there as well. The format was Saga-Legacy-Destiny Booster draft. I was doing alright, but then fell terribly ill, or so I thought. I couldn’t think straight and I felt nauseous. I thought I had come down with the flu or something, but whatever it was, I could not play.

After bombing out of the Pro Tour, I was dismayed but still did not feel well. It was not until after the final round that I drank a Coke and suddenly felt 100% better. It was like night and day. I drank another and realized that I had been in pretty severe caffeine withdrawal.

It was true that I was drinking an excessive amount of Mt. Dew in those days, but I had been drinking Mt. Dew during the tournament. Why had I gotten sick? As one of the British players told me later that night, Mt. Dew in Great Britain doesn’t have caffeine in it (or didn’t in those days). They aren’t allowed to have caffeine in non-cola sodas [not true nowadays — Craig].

After that experience, I took a year off caffeine and resolved to be more careful about its use in the future. I know I joke about drinking a lot of energy drinks or Mt. Dew, but I actually only drink a few Mt. Dews a day, and have had 1 ½ energy drinks this week. You have to be careful with the chemicals you consume.

Obviously, everyone should take care of their bodies, but even from a strictly “success at Magic” position, you do not want to deal with some kind of drug withdrawal during a Magic tournament. I see so many Magic players play with fire, regarding their reckless use of alcohol, stimulants, sleeping pills, and prescription drugs. Trust me on this one, this is not the road to winning more at Magic.

Moderation is a very useful tool across the board, and I am certainly not saying you should never drink if you want to win at Magic, but seriously, be responsible for yourself. You wouldn’t believe the players that have blown Top 8 matches because of mistakes made due to the hangover from their celebration the night before. In my humble opinion, there is plenty of time to party when the tournament is over.

I don’t mean to get too preachy. All I am saying is that it was a very valuable lesson, and not just for Magic. Chemical dependency is a losing proposition. This doesn’t mean you shouldn’t ever drink soda or take Ibuprofen, but whatever you do, be smart about it.

Before you ask… no, I am not talking about illegal chemicals. This is neither the time nor the place for such a conversation, but suffice it to say, if you are giving yourself brain damage or legal troubles, you probably won’t win much at Magic. Besides, people who get heavily into such things have a tendency to not give Magic the focus necessary to succeed at the highest levels.

That December I was in Chicago, competing at the Pro Tour. It was the Extended PT that Bob Maher won. I hadn’t really prepared much for it, as I had had too much going on at that point, but came to compete with a Pitch-Spell Necro deck designed by Eric Taylor.

I ended up finishing 11th again (my third time), losing in the final round to Brian Davis playing the mirror. The most interesting thing about this match was that I kept a hand that didn’t have a Necro, a way to find one, or a way to Duress Davis. I ended up losing because of it, and recall it as the first time I remember losing a match as a result of keeping a hand with lands and spells I could cast, but without a plan.

Even to this day I have to expend extra energy to force myself to mulligan as aggressively as I should, as I have fallen into the trap of keeping loose hands before. In general, good players mulligan more often than weak players.

1998 and 1999 were very educational years for me, both inside Magic and out. College, the first girl I ever thought I loved, and living on my own. The Magic world was a very different place 10 years ago, with the game dominated by Americans, more Pro Tours in a year, less money, and less history. The fact that the game has existed at such a high level for so long has brought us to a culture rich with characters, stories, and ideas.

Hopefully some of the stories I have accumulated over the years can be of use to you in your pursuit of excellence. I have been playing this game for long enough to have made an awful lot of mistakes. Hearing about some of them can help you learn from them without having to go through them yourself. Besides, I always love hearing about and discussing the history of the Pro Tour. Magic Culture is incredible and should be celebrated, passed on from generation to generation.

I’ve got to finish breaking these formats (a.k.a. learn to draft). Wish me luck this week at Worlds!

Patrick Chapin
“The Innovator”

Bonus Decklist

Burning Elves!
A Legacy deck by Patrick Chapin and Manuel Bucher

4 Burning Wish
4 Land Grant
3 Glimpse of Nature

4 Summoner’s Pact
1 Crop Rotation

4 Nettle Sentinel
4 Birchlore Ranger
4 Heritage Druid
3 Llanowar Elves
3 Fyndhorn Elves
4 Quiron Ranger
4 Wirewood Symbiote
3 Elvish Spirit Guide
1 Sylvan Messenger
1 Regal Force
1 Eternal Witness

1 Gaea’s Cradle
1 Pendlehaven
4 Taiga
3 Tropical Island
2 Stomping Ground
1 Forest

1 Grapeshot
1 Hull Breach
1 Weird Harvest
1 Glimpse of Nature
1 Regrowth
1 Chain Lightning
1 Distant Melody
1 Deep Analysis
2 Viridian Shaman
2 Umezawa’s Jitte
3 Thorn of Amethyst