Innovations – What Would Wafo Do? Deckbuilding, Teachings, and Tells

StarCityGames.com Open Series: Indianapolis on March 13-14
Monday, March 8th – Patrick Chapin is a dedicated Control player. Of course, he’s not the only one; Guillaume Wafo-Tapa is another player addicted to the Blue cards. Today, Patrick examines the philosophies behind Wafo’s deckbuilding choices, with special reference to his Extended Teachings deck. He also discusses tells, and the need for a strong poker face.

As you might know, Guillaume Wafo-Tapa is a kindred spirit with Gabriel Nassif and I. We are all cut from the same cloth. It is no secret, we love our control decks. When Wafo and I don’t directly test together, we still swap decks at each event and take great interest in what the other has been working on.

Last month, Wafo and I were talking in San Diego. After comparing U/W with Grixis, conversation eventually moved to his finish at Grand Prix: Oakland, the previous week, where he made Top 16. Our round was going up, so we had to table discussion, but we resumed discussion after the event by way of e-mail. Here are some of his thoughts on his Extended Teachings deck from Oakland:

Hey Patrick,

Wafo here. As we discussed, here’s my Teachings list with which I made Top 16 at GP: Oakland:

4 Misty Rainforest
3 Scalding Tarn
2 Watery Grave
2 Hallowed Fountain
4 Drowned Catacomb
4 Mystic Gate
1 Celestial Colonnade
5 Island

4 Ancestral Vision
4 Esper Charm
3 Mystical Teachings

4 Spell Snare
4 Mana Leak
4 Cryptic Command

2 Engineered Explosives
2 Smother
1 Path To Exile
1 Doom Blade
1 Repeal
1 Logic Knot
1 Extirpate

2 Teferi, Mage Of Zhalfir
1 Crovax, Ascendant Hero

1 Baneslayer Angel
3 Kitchen Finks
1 Pulse Of The Fields
1 Fracturing Gust
1 Extirpate
2 Ravenous Trap
2 Deathmark
2 Night Of Souls’ Betrayal
1 Shadow Of Doubt
1 Jace, The Mind Sculptor

In retrospect, Logic Knot was bad (not that it’s a bad card, but I never got it with Teachings, which should have been the point), and the deck is a bit light against Zoo and Elves. Doom Blade was also terrible, as I faced Black guys quite a few times (not only Dark Confidant, but also Doran and Tidehollow Sculler) so it should be a third Smother.

So the only changes that I would make for the maindeck are:

-1 Logic Knot
-1 Doom Blade
+1 Smother
+1 Engineered Explosives

As for the sideboard, Kitchen Finks was not so good. I felt like it was underperforming against Zoo (either because of Path to Exile, Bant Charm, Noble Hierarch, or it takes a Lightning Bolt and suddenly it’s just smaller than all their guys), and I would rather have the playset of Deathmarks, which incidentally will be much better against Elves. Extirpate #2 I never used either. Including it is a mistake I made due to playing the mirror one too many times on MTGO. Jace was there just to try, and it was amazing (I faced Thopter Depths twice, a BG Rock deck, and Doran twice, and drew it every time; it was sweet). I am not sure about Rest of the Weary versus Pulse of the Fields. And obviously the deck needs something in the board to help against Hypergenesis now.

If I was playing in another Extended event, I would probably play a sideboard resembling this:

1 Baneslayer Angel
1 Pulse of the Fields
1 Fracturing Gust
1 or 2 Ravenous Trap (I guess one should do, since it’s really tight)
4 Deathmark
2 Night of Souls’ Betrayal (so good)
1 Shadow of Doubt
1 or 2 Jace, the Mind Sculptor
2 or 3 Chalice of the Void or Flashfreeze (maybe a 2/1 split)

With Kitchen Finks being no more, the manabase should be adjusted accordingly : -1/2 Mystic Gate, +1/2 Glacial Fortress.

Be well…


Let’s take a good look at Wafo’s list. To begin with, this is obviously a Blue control deck with a huge amount of card draw (as per every Wafo deck ever). It is obviously a Teachings deck, but to overlook the impact that full playsets of Ancestral Visions, Esper Charms, and Cryptic Commands have when it comes to card economy and the way the deck plays out is foolish. Wafo never ceases to amaze me with just how much card advantage he manages to fit into his decks. It is truly an inspiration.

Primarily using Smother, Engineered Explosives, Spell Snare, Mana Leak, and Cryptic Command to control the board, Wafo has relatively modest defensive capabilities that are supplemented by an absurd amount of card draw, attempting to overpower any strategy that doesn’t kill him fast. Guillaume is an extraordinarily disciplined deck builder. Notice how he uses only the good permission, then instead of adding weaker counterspells, he just uses so much card draw that he finds all the Spell Snares, Mana Leaks, and Cryptic Commands he needs.

The untrained eye might think he has relatively few answers to permanents in his deck (without even really having that many counterspells. Eight-ish removal spells (and four Cryptics)? That is not exactly a ton of answers. The thing is, between counterspells and the removal, a full 1/3 of the cards in the deck are versatile answers. To really appreciate how many it feels like he has in game, we should consider how many cards he draws on average.

Take a look at his 60 card deck in terms of draw phases, each card being a different possible draw step. His Mana Leaks, Spell Snares, and Smothers are generally going to be one-for-ones and worth a card. What about his card draw? Well, each Ancestral is worth three cards, Mystical Teachings is worth at least two (but often more since you so often Teachings for Teachings), Esper Charm is worth two, and Cryptic Command is worth two. This adds a total of +19 to +22 cards over the course of every 60 cards you draw, not to mention cards like Crovax, Teferi, and Engineered Explosives, which regularly gain card advantage on their own.

Now we see that we are drawing an extra 20-ish cards every 60, so you might think that it is like we are drawing 1.33 cards per turn, but that is only a part of the picture. Since we are already talking about Magical Christmas Land, where you always have enough mana and all your dreams come true, we can factor in that all the card drawers we draw into will draw us more cards, and so on and so on. The end result?

Every turn, you draw a card, which nets you an extra 1/3 of a card. The thing is, that 1/3 of a card nets you an additional 1/9th of a card (1/3 of a 1/3 of a card). That 1/9th of a card nets you an additional 1/27th of a card and so on. Rather than demonstrate the mathematical proof, let me just assure you, the sum of 1+1/3+1/9+1/27+1/81+… is a limit approaching 1.5. That means that once you factor in the added card draw, you are talking about drawing an extra card every other turn, on the average (not even counting chaining Teachings together). This has the practical consequence of having 20 reactive spells feel like 30. The interesting thing about this is that most decks don’t even have 30 live cards against Wafo (after all, he doesn’t have to counter most Bolts, Paths, Smothers, Explosives, Helix, and so on).

A card draw engine that is strong enough to draw you so many cards that you can literally answer everything your opponent does is particularly important when you don’t have a lock or a quick kill, such as Mindslaver, Thopter-Sword, or Baneslayer. It is not simply enough to draw a few extra cards and rely on Ancestral Visions to get you there. That is not enough extra cards, as you need to have far more than them to make up for how much mana you are playing, as well as the possibility of having the wrong answers at the wrong time.

This is not the first time Wafo has built around this much card draw. In fact, it is actually pretty typical for him. Look at the Five-Color Control deck from Kyoto: 4 Mulldrifter, 4 Esper Charm, 4 Cryptic Commands, 3 Cruel Ultimatum. Then consider Wafo-Grixis: 4 Sign in Blood, 4 Esper Charm, 3 Sphinx of Lost Truth, 2 Sorin Markov, 3 Cruel Ultimatum, as well as the Teachings deck with which he won Pro Tour: Yokohama: 4 Careful Considerations, 3 Mystical Teachings, 2 Think Twice, 2 Draining Whelk, 2 Aeon Chroniclers, and 1 Haunting Hymn. I see so many aspiring deck builders that come from the R/G-Snow Ramp school of deck building when they build control decks.

Basically they sit down with 4 Harmonize, some fatties, and some sweepers, and think that they are magically going to be able to “control” a game. This doesn’t mean these decks can’t win. Look at Previous Level Blue. It mostly relied on 4 Ancestral Visions and 4 Cryptic Commands to draw cards (as well as Control Magic). However, it wasn’t actually trying to take true control. It was really just another “live long enough to kill you with Tarmogoyf” deck. This style can work – pseudo-control and kill with a “fatty” – I am just saying that this is not the way to build a true control deck, which is why 95% of people build terrible true control decks when they try.

Is the only way to play control to play as much card advantage as Wafo-Tapa? The Wafo-Tapa school of deckbuilding is far from the only way to build control decks, but I think it is would personally do a lot of deckbuilders a lot of good to try it and try to learn from it. There is a reason every time I build a control deck I ask myself, “What would Wafo do?” I have never seen as pure a control player and deck builder, which can be useful when you are pushing a concept, since generally no matter how controlling and card-draw-based you might be, there is probably someone who would build their deck for controlling and with more draw (Guillaume…).

This is not Praise Wafo Hour, though. I am just pointing out that by having a tangible extreme, something to show you how far others have gone and not only been “safe” but succeeded can help make it easier to wrap your mind around difficult deck building choices that are often needed in order to find a way to fit in that 9th and 10th – let alone 14th and 15th – card advantage spell. Even if you don’t know Wafo personally, invoking him as a sort of control player ideal can be useful.

Wafo’s style may be the most useful for building pure control decks, but even if you are trying to build a different sort of deck, try to figure out a deck builder that personifies some aspect of deck building that is important to you. Play a lot of Zoo-ish agro decks? Rubin or Saito might be your man. Like to go Rogue? Maybe Conley Woods or Adrian Sullivan are your style. It is not about being accurate with regards to reputation of deck builder. It is about what is useful. If you find it useful to imagine what Adrian Sullivan would do when building a burn deck, roll with it. If Adrian Sullivan, to you, conjures up images of U/G Control, Baron Harkonnen style, that is okay too. Adrian’s pretty face can be attached to whatever mental construct you find to be useful. Erm… you know what I mean. Don’t look at me that way!

Let’s go back to Guillaume’s Teachings deck. One feature that we see is, not surprisingly, a maindeck Extirpate. Obviously, Mystical Teachings makes this little surprise, but I think it is important to note that this is actually one of the biggest draws of Mystical Teachings in the first place. A few Teachings and an Extirpate go a long way towards shutting down Thopter-Sword decks. A good solid control deck with 3 Teachings and an Extirpate is just about the worst possible match-up for Thopter-Depths, the current “best deck” in Extended. Teachings decks aren’t for everyone, but if you have it in you, this is a great time for such a strategy.

The reason you are so good against Thopter-Depths is actually more layered than might immediately be obvious. First of all, you have a way to trump their plans. If they go to all the trouble of setting up Thopter-Sword, a timely Extirpate totally ruins them. Even if you fall behind, you have Explosives and Crovax to help catch up. In addition, Esper Charm can actually be deceptively useful in this match-up as a discard effect. One of the interesting things that sometimes happens is that the Thopter-Depths player uses a Chrome Mox to accelerate and tutors up one combo or the other (or a way to protect one). At this point, they can be particularly vulnerable to Esper Charm, often taking them from 4 cards to 2, and leaving them with no way to protect their combos. You should not blindly Charm them, or you’ll too often hit a Chrome Mox or extra Urborg they are holding, but it should be remembered as a tactical weapon. In general, however, you still want to draw cards instead (as yours are “better” than theirs).

In addition to disrupting the Thopter-Sword combo, you have Cryptics, Path, Repeal, Teachings, and countermagic to disrupt Dark Depths / Hexmage. It is particularly important to remember that the all-in nature of this type of show down makes it doubly important to not let your opponent get the read on you.

The last thing you want is an opponent who can tell when you “have it” or “not.” Personally, I am a big fan of representing strength when I’m weak and weakness when strong, but that is not as simple as it sounds. Sometimes the way to represent strength is to pretend to be weak so that the person thinks you are actually strong (when you are weak, you are just pretending to be weak at a time when you actually are). The key is figuring out which level your opponent is on, and being on the next. This is, of course, not for everyone.

When in doubt, just don’t leak information at all. This can be very difficult, especially if you are not aware of how you are leaking information. One of the best techniques for learning such things is playing games with someone that has a level of mastery that allows them to perceive all of your various tells and then explains to you some of what they are seeing. Not everyone has such an opponent available, but perhaps if you are ever in a position to, try videotaping yourself playing a game.

Just focus on your face and on your hands. Watch what your eyes do. Which way are they looking? Which way do they move when you are thinking? Do you touch your ears, your nose, your chin, your hair? Do you play with your hands? Do you try to pretend you didn’t just draw something that changes things? Do you sit up? Do you slouch? Do you look bored? Can you tell what you drew from looking at your face? Do you set your hand down on the table? Do you shuffle the cards in your hand? Do you look at each card on the battlefield as you think about them? Do you look at your library or graveyard? Do you read the cards in your hand? Do you look at your opponent at all when you have priority? Do you bite your thumb or hand? Do you cough? Do you make any unconscious noises?

I am by no means suggesting that you need to stop all of these things. Instead, I am merely suggesting becoming more aware of what it is you are doing, and determining which are leaking information the fastest. Developing a good poker face is invaluable, and to do so you have to first become aware of what it is you are even doing. Once you are conscious of these things, you will start to realize you are doing them as soon as you do them. You might miss 80% of them, but you will start catching yourself. You will touch your ear then suddenly realize what you just did.

Once you start becoming aware of your tells, you will move closer and closer to realizing you are about to do them before you do them. Eventually, you will develop a level of awareness where you think about them before you do them at all. Next comes not having to do them at all, or doing the wrong ones at the wrong times on purpose. Only the true Jedi achieves this level of awareness, but is possible to learn it with experience. This is not to say that everyone must use Jedi Mind Tricks, but rather that even people who “don’t” use mind games, well, frankly… they do this. It might even be on a subconscious level, but this is an extension of “bluffing.” This is really just playing tight. You don’t have to go out of your way to trick your opponent, but you do have to prevent the leak of information, and when you attack with a Wild Nacatl into a Baneslayer Angel, this is what you are doing (or aspiring to do on some level).

When an opponent plays a Vampire Hexmage and a Dark Depths, it is a situation where you are a favorite to make it out of the encounter ahead (since you have so many ways to 2-for-1 them) but the trick is that if they win the encounter, they have a 20/20 flying indestructible creature which often means instantly winning the game. One technique I have found useful is to figure out what my plan is if they play the combo. Once I know what my plan is, I imagine a totally different plan and walk through it in my head when they actually play the combo.

That means that before they ever play their Hexmage, I knew how I would treat the situation. Once they play the Hexmage, I immediately start going through the motions mentally of what I would do if I had a Path to Exile in my hand, or a Cryptic or whatever it is that I don’t have. You don’t even have to say any words. Your body language will bluff much better than your mouth likely ever could. Be careful though! You don’t want to trick yourself into really believing you have something you don’t.

In addition to having good answers to both combos, Wafo has Smothers, Spell Snares, Leaks, Path, and EE to help ensure that he doesn’t lose to a random Dark Confidant, which is the only other major threat coming out of a Thopter-Depths deck. Be aware of Chalice of the Void, as you don’t want to be surprised when the opponent drops a Chalice on one the turn he is going to combo.

Remember, one of the strengths of a deck like this is that your opponent is not going to know what you are capable of. People who play Mystical Teachings could have ANYTHING. On the flip side, do not let your opponents know the extent of your range, what you actually have. Aside from not revealing what all you are playing, you should also remember to spice it up a little. This is definitely the sort of deck where you should generally try changing a card from the “netdeck.” Even if you doubt your deck building prowess, you should consider adding at least one card, even just to the sideboard, as it is important to be “capable of anything.” If your opponent has you totally pegged, he can make plays that give him 0.3% here, 0.6% there, and so on. Those add up.

Besides, maybe Nassif and I have a sickness, but honestly, it does work. Besides, when we play some random crazy situational reactive trick instead of the 4th copy of some staple in the board, other people get to have their miser’s card be the 4th copy that wasn’t in the netdeck, heh. For serious, it is not just about a good blowout (though people like LSV, Kibler, Rubin, Juza… we all love a good blowout!) It is about the opponent not knowing what all you are capable of.

You have surely heard “Know Thy Enemy.” Think about the corollary. “Avoid Your Enemy Knowing You.”

I like Wafo’s deck, and I am going to experiment with it a bit in preparation for the upcoming Grand Prix events, but personally I am thinking I am going to be experimenting with Jace, the Mind Sculptor. I think Jace is the real deal, and I can’t wait to explore what he makes possible in Extended.

I am out for the day, though you will be hearing from me sooner than later as I am about to release the 420 page expanded paperback version of Next Level Magic. Aside from including added sections and revised material, Next Level Magic is (to the best of my knowledge) the first full color Magic strategy book. I can’t wait until you see a copy! I have rarely been as proud as I am of how this turned out. It means so much to me to be able to contribute to Magic culture. I am dedicated to raising the bar for Magic strategy content, and the expanded version of Next Level Magic delivers.

Next Level Magic goes on sale this month, and there will be more information this week, so watch for it. Also a big thank you to everyone that went out and purchased a copy of the original e-book (there will be a discount for anyone who bought the e-book). The book will be in stock and ready to ship the day it goes on sale. It is the best strategy guide I know how to make, and it contains 17 years of stories from my career, making it a timeless piece of Magic memorabilia. Enough sales pitch, just look for it. It is going to be truly awesome.

Patrick Chapin
“The Innovator”

PS. Bonus Standard brainstorming ideas (untested, just food for thought)