Innovations – Winning a PTQ, Not Violating The Prime Directive

Monday, January 10th – “Never play a bad something else.” That is The Prime Directive, and Patrick Chapin, world-class deck designer, is here to tell you how to avoid building decks that are just worse versions of something else.


Why would I want to do that?

A savvy deckbuilder is capable of coming up with far more decklists than ought to ever be put to cardboard. Sometimes we go into the tank, brewing and brewing, and when we emerge (often hours later), we’re shot down in seconds by an unbiased observer that calls attention to a fatal weakness in the deck we’re building. Not a weakness in terms of a bad matchup or a card it struggles with. Those kinds of weaknesses can be addressed.

No, I’m talking about the fatal weakness of being a “bad something else deck.”

Inspiration comes from any number of places, and generally when it strikes, it’s more useful to let it run wild than to stop it and ask it to explain
itself. An idea from Frazthemonkey in the forums last week prompted a bit of brewing over on 
my page.

The concept?

This idea was spawned out of a discussion about Grixis Faeries, which sacrifices the perfect mana base for answers to Stag and other red contributions. Here, we take the idea one step further.

I sat down to playtest the concoction but only made it fifteen cards into proxying it, getting ready to test against Faeries when I realized a fatal flaw. This was a clear violator of The Prime Directive.

The Prime Directive:

“NEVER play a bad something else.”

I’m sure you’ve heard people use an expression along the lines of “U/W Control is a bad U/B Control” or “Merfolk is a bad Faeries deck.” Whether or not you agree with either of those statements now or ever, the point is that they’re attempting to convey the idea that one strategy is fatally flawed because it is, in essence, just like another strategy, only worse.  

Let’s take Eldrazi Green in Standard. What is that deck, really? It’s the same deck as Valakut! It’s not just the core of Primeval Titans and green acceleration; they both are almost entirely mana with just Summoning Traps and a few key cards to win. They both try to go over the top of the opponent; they both feature a land package that can win through permission going long; they both are vulnerable to discard; they both involve relatively minimal interaction and so on.

The difference? Valakut is just much better.

Valakut has better matchups basically across the board. Regardless of how we try to articulate why this is, we have enough experience in the format by
now to know that Valakut is a great deck, and that Eldrazi Green is a poor one. Not only that, but just about anything Eldrazi Green can do, Valakut
can do better.

The Prime Directive reminds us that when this is the case, the wise mage doesn’t play the offending strategy.

Keep in mind we can’t always be sure that a “weaker” deck is actually just a “bad” version of another deck. For instance, Wargate is a worse deck than Faeries in my opinion. However, it’s certainly not a “bad” Faeries deck. They’re not very alike at all, neither in strategy nor matchups. There are a lot of reasons to play decks besides the “best” deck. If a deck truly is just a bad version of another deck however, you by definition shouldn’t play it.

Any exception that you might formulate to this rule will really just demonstrate that the example you were considering didn’t feature a deck that’s actually just a bad version of another. For instance, when people talk about Merfolk being a bad Faeries deck, often this is a gross exaggeration. Merfolk and Faeries may both be sort of Counter-Sliver tempo decks, but Merfolk is much more of the Sliver beatdown style (lots of guys enhancing each other), whereas Faeries is much more of a U/B Control deck that almost reminds one of Forgotten Orb decks from the mid-nineties (Forgotten Orb decks were U/B Tempo decks with Man-o’-War, Nekrataal, Winter Orb, Fallen Askari, Memory Lapse, and so on). They have similarities, but many of the cards and decks that are good against one are not good against the other. As a result, while Faeries is significantly better than Merfolk at the moment, it’s conceivable (though unlikely) that the format could evolve to a place where that’s reversed.

As such, right now Merfolk may be a bad Faeries deck, but if you expect Cloudthreshers everywhere, maybe it’s possible that Merfolk ends up being a “good Faeries deck.” As you can see, this whole idea of a deck being a bad something else is very subjective and depends entirely on context.

Anyway, the connection back to Splinter Twin is the heads-up comparison between Faeries and Splinter Twin Faeries. As I started proxying up the Splinter Twin build, I couldn’t help but notice that the cards that were different from a traditional Faeries deck looked
really bad,

sitting next to the originals.

First of all, three Splinter Twins basically take the place of a Jace, the Mind Sculptor, a Mistbind Clique, and a Spellstutter Sprite. Hrmm, kind of have to give it to the originals, but I guess it’s close, so let’s say we could go either way.

Next, we see four Pestermites instead of Scions or Vendilions. So obviously there’s a reason why nobody makes that choice normally, but I’m not actually that sad to have to Pestermite. That guy is not half bad. Still, this is a non-zero downgrade.

Next, we have three Bolts instead of three Disfigures? Rock on! Now we’re talking! That’s an upgrade for sure. Then comes four Preordains instead of two more removal spells and two more discard spells. Err, I guess that’s okay, but I sure like removal spells and discard spells.

Oh yeah, our mana base…

So outside of the fact that it’s debatable whether or not our spells are even as powerful as the originals, our mana base is far, far worse. Faeries, a deck that has one of the best mana bases ever, is trivialized and now “just another deck.” To make matters worse, cards like Preordain and Splinter Twin are pretty terrible against traditional Faeries. Why are we even doing this? There’s nothing wrong with letting ourselves imagine stuff that people might consider crazy or terrible or whatever, but it’s useful to remember to ask ourselves what we’re trying to accomplish. Why are we adding a combo kill to Faeries? Because we can? Just to be clever?

We’re better than that…

Are you honestly telling me that the problem with Faeries is that it just doesn’t have a big enough kill condition? Or perhaps it doesn’t get enough turn 4 kills? No, the real problems with Faeries are hyper-aggressive decks, hate cards, not drawing Bitterblossom, being a tough deck, and enchantments. The Splinter Twin combo doesn’t even pretend to address any of that beyond some Bolts to help against Stags.

This idea was a fantastic idea, so don’t confuse final evaluations with the relative merit of the idea. If you have even one good deck idea in ten,
you’re way, way above the curve. Besides, who knows? Maybe a month from now, Splinter Twin Faeries is as popular as
Justin Bieber.

The goal here is to evaluate what’s the best use of our time. We don’t have enough time in the day to try each and every idea that we might come up with. As such, having shortcuts to help us determine which lines of deckbuilding are worth pursing are crucial.

We mentioned above that the problem with Eldrazi Green is that it’s just a bad Valakut. U/G Genesis Wave is a deck that some had considered to be a good Eldrazi Green deck (or in the words of our National Champion, Josh Utter-Leyton, “It’s a bad RUG deck.”) The U/G Wave deck, originally designed by returning legend Michael J Flores
and discussed here,

had new life breathed into it by the mad genius, Conley Woods himself. Here’s the list that Conley took to a Top 2 finish at the StarCityGames.com Open in Kansas City this past weekend.

Primeval Titan finding Tectonic Edge is nothing new, and Frost Titan made his way into the build long ago. It’s almost comical that it took Conley Woods (who adds land destruction to everything) this long to finally just get it over with and add Acidic Slime and Spreading Seas to the mix.

Do you realize that over 50% of all land-destruction decks made during the Obama administration have been Conley’s doing?

Cutting a Primeval Titan, a Genesis Wave, the four “adjustable slots” (Oracle, Garruks, etc.), and two lands to add the four Seas and four Slimes is a clean and intriguing move. The land destruction angle is certainly awesome against Valakut. The deck was already great against blue decks. I’m not sure how we’re doing against aggro, but there does seem to be a heavier anti-aggro plan in the board. All in all, this definitely looks like a pretty sweet update to the list.

But is this just a bad RUG deck?

Here’s where the beauty of Conley’s plan comes into play. The buffing of the land-destruction element helps differentiate U/G Wave from RUG by accentuating something that it does (and does well, now) that RUG can’t do. One of Wrapter’s (Utter-Leyton) biggest complaints with the old list was that it was much like a RUG deck without Preordain or Lightning Bolt. Not having that library manipulation or removal cuts out two major elements that RUG has going for it. What did we get in return? We ramp out a bunch of stuff, but that’s about it. Don’t get me wrong; it’s pretty sweet to Wave out of control, but really, we weren’t doing much that RUG doesn’t do beyond the minimal land-destruction theme of Frost Titan and Tectonic Edge.

Now, the LD is in high gear. This gives us a key difference, a positional imbalance that we can build on!

There are a variety of positional imbalances in Magic that can be basically lumped into three categories:

1) Mana supply (leads into tempo)

2) Cards in hand or permanents (leads into card advantage)

3) Life total, cards in library, poison counters (leads into the Philosophy of Fire)

For more on these basic building blocks on Magic theory,
check this out.

Each of these categories can, of course, be broken into many, many smaller categories, but pretty much everything fits into one of these three types of advantages (okay, not pretty much, actually everything). This is all well and good for making us feel good about ourselves and how smart we are for
having thought such “high-level thoughts,” but some
jaded forum dwellers

would ask for a tad bit more practicality in our theory.

Conley Woods‘ adding a dedicated land destruction package (again) gives him an opportunity to create or exploit an imbalance that RUG cannot. When operating correctly, land destruction tends to capture a fair bit of tempo. This tempo is useless without some mechanism for exploiting it (such as a Bitterblossom sitting on the battlefield), but U/G Wave has a natural solution (Titans and Waves are fantastic things to do when you and your opponent are just kind of hanging out, you “flooded” and him “screwed.”)

It’s not so important how good Conley’s build is. What’s important is that it has a different element to it than RUG. It now fully embraces a plan that RUG doesn’t even touch on. This means there’s certainly no violation of The Prime Directive here.  

The ability to evaluate a game state and formulate a plan in Magic is of the utmost importance. Michael Jacob has
written extensively about the importance of having a plan.

He’d agree that not having a plan leads to getting punished, but what exactly is a plan?

“Planning is the process by which a player utilizes the advantages and minimizes the drawbacks of his position. In order to promise success, planning is thus always based on a diagnosis of the existing characteristics of the position; it is therefore most difficult when the position is evenly balanced, and easiest when there is only one plan to satisfy the demands of the position.” –Harry Golombek, Encyclopedia of Chess, Quote taken from, “How to Reassess Your Chess” by J. Silman pg. 25

At the end of the day, if you want to gain an advantage in a game of Magic, you have to find a way to unbalance the game. Both sides are basically identical most of the time, out of the gate, with the primary difference being one player beginning with the initiative, going first. Conley has pushed the land-destruction theme, as he’s wont to do, in an effort to create a temporary imbalance that he can capitalize on. This is hardly the only way one (or Conley) can or does, but it’s an excellent reminder of the sorts of ways one can steer their deck away from an existing deck.

Most people just make stuff, just to be making it. Okay, actually, I guess technically most people don’t even bother coming up with that many ideas themselves, but among those that do, an awful lot of them just try stuff without rhyme or reason. Do you have any idea how many people send me W/B/R midrange decks that are literally created just because “no one ever plays that color combination?” I assure you; it’s not because no one has ever thought of it. Oh, it will be good someday, no question, but when it is, it will be for a reason.

It’s great to think such ideas, but it’s also useful to ask yourself what you’re trying to accomplish. What does W/B/R do better than anyone else? What’s its niche? What’s the theory behind why you’re playing that instead of cutting one of those colors for blue? Talk about three popular color combinations!

When you have an idea that you want to explore, here are three simple questions to ask yourself to help determine if you might be violating The Prime Directive:

1) What’s the difference between this deck and that other deck that’s sort of like it?

2) Why would you actually want to play it this new, other way?

3) What does that difference actually beat that the other way does not?

Just playing different cards to be playing different cards isn’t the ruthless Spike road to victory! We want to win! We aren’t afraid to invent crazy technology, but we want to win even if it’s with boring Cryptic Commands or Bitterblossoms or Jaces or Bloodbraid Elves or whatever. Perhaps this doesn’t apply to you, as you might be one of those Mono-Green or Mono-Red types that care about a lot of things an awful lot more than winning the event. That’s fine. Still, this article is primarily for those trying to win a PTQ, win an FNM, win an Open, or win a Grand Prix.

If you can’t think of what positive differences there are – why you’d want them and what matchups and situations you’re better off in – then why are you going to the trouble? When you’re building decks, brainstorming, whatever, ask yourself these three questions. Conley saw the mana-denial element in U/G Wave that set itself apart from RUG and ran with it. It would give him an edge against Valakut, a very important matchup, so already we have grounds for exploring the idea. That’s a man with a plan!

Let’s jump back to the PTQ format with another list that I’d considered just recently.

Okay, so let’s set aside the somewhat dubious mana base and ask ourselves a very basic question about the maindeck.

Why are we doing this?

It’s pretty obvious that this deck wants to play a typical Junk game of using some discard to disrupt the opponent while dominating the board with
topnotch, midrange brawlers (and lots of
Big Daddy Gaddy

) and clearing the path with removal. This build of Doran is hardly groundbreaking, but remembering what it is we’re trying to accomplish can help point us in a direction to go. This is certainly not going to be the concept behind every Doran deck, but adhering to this principle can help ensure that we’re not just building a bad Zoo deck or a bad Jund deck or a bad Faeries deck.

How is Doran not a Zoo deck?

It has a discard package that lends a completely different slant to it.

How is Doran not a Jund deck?

Doran features a great deal more cheap fatties and Gaddock Teeg.

How is Doran not a Faeries deck?

Doran uses creatures that rely on individual power, rather than synergy, plus dodges much of the Faeries’ hate.

Now, as this deck surely demonstrates, simply “not violating The Prime Directive” doesn’t make a deck good. I think there may be a Doran deck to be discovered, but I’m skeptical that this is it. Still, it’s tempting to lie to ourselves and pretend, “This is Extended; all the decks are bad.”

No, no they aren’t, dude. Not all of the decks are bad. Not everyone understands why the good ones are good, but Faeries is most definitely good, and White Weenie is most definitely bad.

I’m not saying the format isn’t wide open, but for serious, let’s keep it real here. There are definitely a number of good decks and a number of bad ones. We may disagree which get assigned to one side of the room or the other, but surely we can all agree that Faeries is good, and White Weenie is bad. From there, it’s just a matter of perspective. Actually, while we’re on the topic:

Your deck doesn’t necessarily suck, and even if it did, feeling bad won’t help anything.

Your deck could be better, and you’d feel better if you reflected on what you’ve been learning each day and in each playtest session.

What does this Doran deck need to prosper? Well, one-mana discard spells, Maelstrom Pulses, and Gaddock Teeg, plus an even more disruptive sideboard make for a pretty disruptive angle of attack against “big” decks. Putrid Leech, Knight of the Reliquary, Doran, the Siege Tower, Wilt-Leaf Liege, and Path make for a pretty good anti-“small” deck strategy. Additionally, this list uses very versatile cards that have plenty of applications outside of their primary roles.

The real problem with Doran?

This deck has no Cryptic Commands. Not playing Cryptic Command right now just seems so bad. I mean, yeah, obviously I’d say that, but you know what? This isn’t the first time this has come up. When Standard featured many of the same cards that are seeing heavy play in Extended today, we used to always say that not playing Cryptic Command was a mortal sin. Play Faeries, play 5CC, play U/W, play Wargate, play Ascension, play Polymorph, play Merfolk, but for the love of all that is holy, play Cryptic Command.

Yes, I know that Jund is in the picture now. Plus, it’s not hard to think of all sorts of clever decks (like Necrotic Ooze) or all sorts of decks that always “exist” (like Mono-Red). Seriously, though, why do you not want to play Cryptic Command? It’s better than Jace in the format (by far) and costs a small fraction of the dollar cost. Readers that read my column a couple years ago may remember the perpetual process of adding Cryptic Command to each and every deck. Guess what? Jund, meet Five-Color Blood. Conscription, meet the Cryptics you could have been playing already. Elves? Okay, Elves you better sit your butt down. Your time to shine is

when all the top players are playing Cryptic Command.

What am I thinking of playing at Grand Prix Atlanta? I know it’s

but we haven’t invented Plumeveil in over a year…

Patrick Chapin
“The Innovator”