Kibler’s 2011 Review

2011 was a tumultous year for Magic: The Gathering. Brian Kibler learned a lot about preparing for tournaments, with the birth and death of Caw-Blade, the new Modern format, and much more.

2011 has been quite the year for Magic. Any year has its ups and downs, but this one has been a time of particular turmoil for gamers everywhere. As the year winds down, I thought I’d take a look back at the major happenings of 2011, both from my personal perspective and for the game as a whole, and take a look at what lessons we can learn from them, as well as my predictions and hopes for Magic in 2012.

The magical year began for me with the SCG Open in San Jose. I chose to pilot Caw-Go, the deck with which I’d gone undefeated on day one of the World Championships. Few players had been able to replicate my success with the deck since, which had led to some questioning as to whether the deck was legitimate or whether my success had been a fluke. I did my best to prove the naysayers wrong, making the semifinals before losing to Alex Bertoncini RUG deck. Despite failing to win the tournament, I felt like the deck remained extremely strong and resolved to be on the lookout for anything that might improve it coming out of Mirrodin Besieged. I also took particular note of the Stoneforge Mystic / Sword of Body and Mind package in Michael Hetrick (aka Shipitholla) sideboard, since it seemed like it might be a promising strategy for the mirror match in the future…

Next up was Grand Prix Atlanta. One of my magical resolutions coming in to 2011 was to better use Magic Online as a testing tool, and Grand Prix Atlanta was my first opportunity to put that into practice. I built a powerful G/W Fauna Shaman/Vengevine deck that leaned heavily on Tectonic Edge to beat Jund, Naya, Faeries, 5CC, and the Prismatic Omen/Scapeshift decks that were very popular online. My deck held up in those matchups for which I prepared but fell short against the G/R Valakut deck that was among the most popular in the tournament.

What I learned from my experience is that while Magic Online is an excellent tool for getting a basic sense of a format and tuning a deck, one cannot rely on it too much. For Atlanta, I based my testing on information from Magic Online alone, and my performance suffered as a result. This hurt me on multiple levels as well. Not only did I underestimate the popularity of G/R Valakut (which I could have anticipated just by talking to people about the format more), but I also overvalued the information I gleaned from Magic Online results about the contents of different decks. I overextended against a U/W control deck because I “knew” that U/W didn’t play Day of Judgment maindeck, only to lose to the board-clearing sorcery that I could have certainly played around.

The takeaway from this is that while information is incredibly valuable in Magic, it’s important to properly weigh where you’re getting your information and how much you can rely on it. As I said, Magic Online is a great tool, but data gleaned from it must be taken for what it is—a small slice of the bigger picture.

Oh, and everyone made fun of my Squadron Hawks in Atlanta, but soon they would learn…

Next up was Magic Weekend Paris, which was notable for two major things. One, it was the first (and, from the looks of it, the last) time a Pro Tour was held concurrently with a Grand Prix. From the moves WotC has made for next season, it’s clear that they viewed this experiment as a failure. The logistical challenges of running two major events at the same venue are enormous, and Magic Weekend Paris highlighted many of them. The Pro Tour itself ran rather smoothly, but running it in the same venue as the Grand Prix resulted in many problems. Day one of the Grand Prix was run as not one, not two, but three flights, one of which was in a separate room from the others. This led to communication issues, particularly when one of the flights was delayed, and the round times became staggered. Additionally, running the Grand Prix day two concurrently with the PT Top 8 caused confusion and frustration among the Top 8 competitors. Some of them were told they wouldn’t be allowed to play in the Grand Prix only to find that others (like Paul Rietzl) signed up anyway. While the story of Paul’s IRL double-queuing was an entertaining tale from the weekend, the logistical realities caused problems for WotC, and the fact that he was allowed to play at all annoyed some of the other competitors. Granted, it’s hard to feel sorry for someone who’s playing in the Top 8 of the Pro Tour, but the crossed wires caused some frustration, and I’d be surprised to see something like that happen again.

The other defining factor of PT Paris—and the Standard season that followed it—was Caw-Blade. It is a rarity in modern Magic when an individual deck is *that* much better than the rest of the field. I actually feel like our performance at the pro tour, with two in the Top 8 (including the winner) and four more in the Top 16, was the result of us running below expectation as well as so many of us having to play each other in the later rounds. While I’ve gotten the lion’s share of the credit from most people for the design of the deck, I have to point out that it was Josh Utter-Leyton who was the first to actually put Stoneforge Mystic in the main deck. I’d been the major Caw-Go advocate on the team, and I’d been pushing to try Stoneforge/Sword as a sideboard card against control, but it was but Wrapter who first tried it in the main. After the first time I connected with a Sword of Feast and Famine, I knew we were on to something, and we quickly went from two Mystics, to three, to the full four copies. The rest, as they say, is history.

My personal performance at Magic Weekend Paris was especially disappointing, particularly since I’d been championing Caw-Go in our playtesting from the beginning. Ultimately, though, my prior experience with the deck proved to be a detriment to my performance rather than an asset. I was coming at matchups from the context of my previous experience rather than from the perspective of the new build of the deck. As an example, in one of my matches against Valakut, I mulliganed into a hand with a Mana Leak, a Stoic Rebuttal, and five land. I kept the hand, but in retrospect I feel like I should have mulliganed. My experience with Caw-Go against Valakut had trained me to value countermagic highly, but with Caw-Blade against the new versions of Valakut, it wasn’t actually that powerful. The matchup was about Stoneforge Mystic and Mystic alone. You couldn’t beat any draw involving Thrun without Mystic, and without Spreading Seas, you weren’t set up to win the long game anymore. You needed to close things out by getting Sword online as soon as possible. The takeaway from Paris for me was that past experience is no substitute for playtesting and analysis. I can’t say that my result would have been much different if I’d made those strategic tweaks, but I wasn’t putting myself in the best position to win, and that’s not where I want to be at a Pro Tour.

Speaking of being in the best position to win—somehow my sole Top 8 of the year came the weekend after Paris, at GP Denver, when I was horribly sick. I’d flown in a day early to hang out and maybe play in some grinders for extra practice but woke up on Friday morning feeling absolutely miserable. My throat was killing me, and I couldn’t so much as swallow without pain. I spent all day in bed rather than playing at all and told myself that if I’d felt like this the day before, I wouldn’t have even gotten on the plane. All that having been said, I figured that since I was already in Denver I might as well play and powered through the tournament despite my illness, declining handshakes and trying to avoid contact to avoid spreading my affliction to anyone else. I managed to make it as far as the Top 8 before drafting a weak deck and falling to Martin Juza in the quarterfinals.

The story would be kind of entertaining if it ended there, but it doesn’t. See, my tendency to try to figure things out and solve problems isn’t limited to Magic metagames. I make a habit of self-diagnosis when I get sick, which sometimes leads to absurd hypochondriac fears that everything is a sign of some kind of cancer but can also lead to early identification of what’s wrong with me before I go to the doctor. By the time I went home on Monday, I was fairly certain I had strep throat and made an appointment to see my doctor ASAP. When I went to my doctor’s office, he asked me if I’d be okay with a medical student evaluating me, and I said sure. I explained all of my symptoms to the med student, showed him the cell phone pictures I’d taken of my throat with the distinctive white splotches, and told him that I was fairly certain I had strep. He rambled something about pharyngitis before handing me back off to the doctor, who did a quick strep test at my behest, but sent me off without any meds.

Two days later, I got a call from the doctor’s office. I had strep throat and should go pick up my medications immediately. Told ya so. Maybe not a major event in the world of Magic at large, but it amused me.

The next few things I want to touch on were a bit of a bigger deal in the Magic world—bannings, both of cards and of players. When images of the New Phyrexia godbook appeared online, rumors were flying about where they came from. It wasn’t long before the culprits were uncovered, and what a high profile leak it was. Guillaume Matignon, the 2010 World Champion, and Guillaume Wafo-Tapa, 2010 World Championship finalist and likely shoe-in for the 2011 class of the Pro Tour Hall of Fame, were found to be the source of the leak. Matignon had received the godbook to write articles for print magazine Lotus Noir and had shared the information with Wafo-Tapa in violation of his NDA. Wafo had discussed it with other French players, who had ultimately leaked the images on IRC, which led to the whole house of cards falling down.

WotC responded by banning all the players involved until at least 2012, with Matignon getting the harshest sentence at three years. This—along with the lifetime banning of Lucas Florent late in the year for posting threats against a WotC employee online—showed that Wizards is willing to take strong action when necessary to protect its business and its employees. It’s easy for a lot of people to lose sight of the fact that Magic is, at its core, a business. The competitive Magic community in particular is one that has been allowed to avoid “growing up” for a long time and sometimes needs reminders that this isn’t “just a game.” Actions have consequences, even if they’re just intended to be kept between friends. This isn’t ‘Nam, man—there are rules.

It was a different set of rules that led to the banning of Jace, the Mind Sculptor and Stoneforge Mystic. In the wake of PT Paris, Caw-Blade began a period of dominance the likes of which had not been seen in the modern era of Magic. It was the result of a convergence of circumstances, not the least of which was the growth of the StarCityGames.com Open Series. With high-profile tournaments every weekend, the rate at which the format matured accelerated rapidly. The constant events also rewarded tuning existing decks much more than innovating new strategies, so the public face of Standard was a non-stop stream of Caw-Blade decks everywhere. There was some talk of banning Jace after Caw-Blade and RUG split the Top 8 of GP Dallas 50/50, with four of each in quarterfinals, but New Phyrexia was just around the corner, and most people seemed content to wait and see what solutions WotC may have planted in the new set.

It turned out the solution was printing Batterskull and Dismember because they pushed Caw-Blade so far past the edge that no one could reasonably argue it was fair anymore. It didn’t take long before Batterskull and Dismember helped plug all of the holes that Caw-Blade had against both aggressive strategies and utility creatures, leaving the rest of the magical world shaking their heads. At that point, even the staunchest opponents of a ban (myself included) had had enough—it was time for something to go.

Many doubted whether WotC would take the necessary action, with Jace a mythic rare that had become the face of their marketing and Stoneforge just having been reprinted in an event deck, but to their surprise—and to WotC’s credit—they did, eliminating both Jace and Stoneforge in one fell swoop. While some argued that one or the other could have solved the problem, WotC’s position was that the fact of the banning was bad enough that they wanted to be sure there was actual change. The worst possible scenario, they suggested, would be for them to ban one or the other and then see the remaining card dominate the format by itself.

Jace and Stoneforge were the first cards banned in Standard since the great Affinity debacle many years ago. There have been many calls to ban cards in the intervening years, but the dynamic planeswalker/artificer duo were the first to live up to the high standards of cards deserving of a ban. They dominated the format over a sustained period of time and dramatically stifled diversity. By the end, even those who enjoy searching for the solution to a well-defined problem in deckbuilding—like me—knew they had to go.

And what was I doing during this period of Caw-Blade dominance? Playing just about anything but Caw-Blade. I have to admit—I was stubborn. I first built my U/B Infect deck to combat what I thought would be an influx of Mono Red and Boros in the wake of PT Paris. At first my predictions were right, and I had a decent amount of success with the deck, but once the format was firmly in the talons of Squadron Hawk and friends, I tried to adapt the deck for an environment it had no real reason to exist in. I was looking backwards, not forwards, and that’s not the way to win.

Similarly, my Vedalken Certarch/Tezzeret deck that I built for GP Singapore was great against the pre-New Phyrexia versions of Caw-Blade but couldn’t stand up to a field full of Dismembers and maindeck Divine Offerings. The lesson here is that sometimes you need to recognize that you can’t solve everything. Sometimes you really can’t beat them, and you should just join them. This is a particularly difficult lesson for me to accept because I pride myself on being able to figure things out—deckbuilding and metagame solving is my favorite part of Magic. Thankfully it’s a lesson that I was able to learn in time to make deck decisions later this year—but sadly not in time to get me to play Tempered Steel at PT Nagoya.

PT Nagoya was a strange event. It was one time that the collective Magic Online intelligence had figured out that Tempered Steel was by far the best deck, and yet an incredibly small percentage of the field actually played it. Compared to PT Honolulu two years prior, where Jund was recognized as the consensus best deck and actually made up nearly half of the field on day two, Nagoya was incredibly diverse in a format that was arguably far narrower. Honolulu at least had a number of successful anti-Jund decks in the mix, including G/W aggro, Five-Color Cascade, and the Esper Stoneblade deck.

In Nagoya, people showed up with any number of various control decks that didn’t stand a chance against Tempered Steel! After the Swiss rounds, LSV played an exhibition match against Shouta playing his four-color Tezzeret deck and crushed him in less than ten minutes. I chose to play Mono Red at the PT because I didn’t want to play endless mirror matches and fight through tons of hate, but in retrospect wished I’d played Tempered Steel because no one really gave it the respect it deserved.  The lesson here is much like the one above—don’t handicap yourself by refusing to play the best deck, and don’t give the rest of the world too much credit. When you spend a lot of time preparing for an event, not everyone is going to have everything as well figured out as you are. Don’t be afraid to just play a better version of the best deck than the rest of them.

The rest of the year contained fewer lessons for me because it was when I was doing things right—mostly. I decided to brew up a deck to beat Caw-Blade for Nationals and succeeded in doing so with Blade Breaker but didn’t spend enough time tuning the deck for other matchups. At Nationals itself, I had a disappointing record in Standard thanks to a number of losses to aggressive decks, for which I was woefully underprepared. I remedied the situation by the TCGPlayer Championship and improved upon it again for GP Pittsburgh, where I posted a 12th-place finish. The lesson to come away with here is to avoid focusing your testing too much—even if your metagame deck wins 100% of the matches you play against the decks you prepare for (which it never will, by the way), you still have to beat opponents playing something else to do well. Metagame decks tend to only have a brief window during which they can be maximally effective, so it’s important to get your testing done right the first time.

One tournament for which we definitely got things done right was PT Philly, but the success of our Counter-Cat Zoo deck was hardly the big story of that tournament. The real story of PT Philly was the birth of Modern as a format. Players had long been advocating the creation of some kind of middle ground between Legacy and Standard, as Extended had fallen out of favor. Gavin Verhey had done a great deal of work with his “Overextended” format, and when PT Philadelphia threatened to be yet another Jace and Stoneforge-dominated tournament if left as Extended, WotC took the bold move of changing the format of the event about a month in advance. While this upset some players who had spent time and effort building Extended decks, by and large it was welcomed enthusiastically by both players and spectators. In fact, according to Scott Larabee, PT Philly was the most watched Magic broadcast ever, leading one to believe that a lot of people are interested in what the new format would look like.

WotC has done a lot to continue to shape that new format since then, and while I don’t necessarily agree with all of their decisions, it does show remarkable willingness to be proactive with bannings in Modern to keep the format fresh. This is a different philosophy than that they have used when governing other formats in the past, and it will be interesting to see how it plays out. I know that I’m excited to play Modern next year, with Wild Nacatl or not, so they’re doing something right. That said, I also know lots of players who don’t want to bother with Modern because they feel the format is too unstable with the constant bans, but perhaps we just need to wait for the format to settle somewhat—if it ever does.

The next big surprise coming out of WotC in the latter half of 2011 was the organized play revamp—Planeswalkers Point and all. I’ve talked at seemingly endless length about PWP lately, so I won’t revisit too much. I do think that Planeswalker Points done right is a better direction for Magic OP than the Elo rating system in the long run, and WotC’s announcement last week about how they’re changing their plans in the face of feedback shows that they’re committed to creating the best possible experience for players. If anything, the whole OP situation has led me to have even more faith in WotC, since it indicates they’re willing to admit when they make mistakes and work to fix them. I do have some concerns with the new system—like the World Cup Qualifiers amounting to essentially three one-slot Nationals—but WotC did a lot to placate my fears that things would be changing majorly for the worse. Though they could certainly stand to improve their initial communications of changes…

Lastly, the World Championships this year were a huge success for Team Fireball, though not so much for me personally. It was a frustrating tournament for me, since I felt like I made excellent deck choices (including playing Tempered Steel after resisting it until the last minute), drafted well, and played well, and just got unlucky and couldn’t manage to put together a great finish. I suppose it says something when a Top 64 finish can be a huge disappointment, but compared to the rest of the team making up half of the Top 8—and compared to my own goals for myself—it was exactly that. I had higher aspirations, but those are going to have to wait until next year, it seems.

Looking ahead, I’m really excited for Magic in 2012. While I will miss the World Championships, I think it will be interesting to see how the Magic World Cup develops, and I’m certainly excited for the possibility of qualifying for the sixteen-man Player’s Championship. I like the new structure of the player’s club, especially since it counts the latter half of 2011 when I actually put up good results—and means I get a $500 Hall of Fame appearance fee on top of everything, too! I think the stronger stratification—you’re either “sponsored” fully at Platinum or you’re not—will help make the idea of playing “pro magic” more viable. The benefits from the middle levels certainly helped defray travel costs and the like for some players, but it makes much more sense for WotC to heavily support their stars.

I’m excited to see what’s waiting for us in Dark Ascension and Avacyn Restored. I still want to see some aggressive and midrange black and green creatures to help make those kind of decks more viable—one day, I promise you, Daybreak Ranger will have its time in the sun! That might not be until after Primeval Titan rotates out, but still… it will come. It’s not just Daybreak Ranger I’d like to see get her due, though—I still really want Phyrexian Obliterator to be good. Right now there just aren’t enough solid black creatures to make it happen, but I have a feeling there’ll be some more Zombies and Vampires in the next sets—maybe some Werewolves, too! I think Standard is in a great place right now, with a huge variety of viable decks, but I’d love to see even more strategies become viable. Just give me a few more quality green and black one- to three-drops, and I’ll make it happen!

Anyway, that’s going to do it for this week—and this year. I hope you enjoyed this retrospective on 2011 and maybe even learned something from my mistakes. I know I did.

Until next time,