Listen to the Pros!

I was reading through some old Sideboard Magazines recently and found some awful advice from top Pros about playing Sealed decks. So how do I reconcile this”Pro” advice with my standard methods for playing Sealed? Should I drop all my own assertions and force myself into using their tips, regardless of the consequences? Should I ignore them completely, claiming that they’re a bunch of hacks and I could just as easily be on the Pro Tour and beating these guys out myself – if only I was as lucky as they were? Or should I do as I recommend everyone do when they scour these websites for tidbits of advice from any of the authors?

No, I didn’t disappear.

I just moved to Minnesota.

There is little pleasure to be derived from hauling an entire household across the great Midwestern plains in the middle of a blizzard. It’s even less enjoyable to try and unpack, clean, and find new homes for all the mementos and trinkets that have been collected over the last several years, thanks to an unfortunate case of habitual packrat-itis. I think there were more boxes dedicated to collectibles than to actual household items.

It’s been six months and I am still opening boxes. That clinging desire to hang on to every little scrap of life has started to warp into disgust. How significant will a folded-up, empty Mirage booster box be in twenty years? Or a hanging paper mural from Mercadian Masques? After discovering a box completely dedicated to holding every Sideboard issue that I had received since I first applied for my legend membership*, I decided it was time to start using the circular file.

As all good packrats are wont to do, I couldn’t resist one last look at all the memories I was about to throw in the bin. How many names back in 1996 did I not care about then but would recognize now? Would I find any of my friends in those old pro tour pictures?

Three hours later, I’ve set aside a few treasures. Eric Kirkman, I’ve got a picture of you on page fourteen of the September 1996 sideboard. I didn’t even need to look to notice you. Randy Buehler, I found the slew of sideboards proclaiming your dominance of the Grand Prix circuit. Thomas Andersson, I was always clueless about why everyone seemed to think so highly of you – now I understand.

I also now have the image of a dark-haired, skin-and-bones Mark Rosewater etched into memory. It’s good to see that he is finally getting fed. [Lots of pizza, or so Bleiweiss says. – Knut]

There was one issue, though, that I decided not to put to the side. In December 1996, when the Sideboard staff was still playing with elaborate background pictures in Photoshop and had not yet mastered the concept of diametrically opposed colors for background and wording, they had tried to hide a title in maroon on Frank Alder’s black pants that I somehow managed to catch:”Professional Tips for Competing in Sealed Deck.”

Being a self-proclaimed connoisseur at the art of building sealed decks, my curiosity was piqued. With draft dominating the realm of Limited play, you rarely hear a murmur from the contemporary Pros on how to go about building sealed decks. Is there a basic strategy being kept secret from Magic fledglings? Or have I managed, through my own deduction and play, to discover by 2000 what the pros had known back in 1996?

I flipped to page 30 and found myself introduced to the article with the following tips:

“I will probably play four or five colors.” — Brian Hacker

“I always play at least three, usually four or five [colors].” — John Finkel

“With four colors I play 19 land, with three colors, 17 land.” — Darwin Kastle

Was this a joke? I think I would even be laughed out of my casual group if I constructed a Mirrodin sealed deck that sported eighteen land, let alone nineteen. I am still trying to kick my husband of the habit of trying to squish four colors into a sealed deck when he is constantly plagued by color problems. I had to check the cover again, to verify it wasn’t another”Island are Banned”** April Fool’s joke.

Nope, still December.

So how do I reconcile this”Pro” advice with my standard mantra of seventeen lands, two colors, maybe a third color for splash? Should I drop all my own assertions and force myself into using their tips, regardless of the consequences? Should I ignore them completely, claiming that they’re a bunch of hacks and I could just as easily be on the Pro Tour and beating these guys out myself – if only I was as lucky as they were?

Or should I do as I recommend everyone do when they scour these websites for tidbits of advice from any of the authors?

And yes, ironically, the same advice could be applied to this article.

Most advice is meaningless unless there is an implicit understanding to the reasoning behind these pearls of wisdom that are offered so freely. Such opinions are shaped by experience and belief more than logic. If some stranger insisted that it was better to swim across a certain stream rather than take a convenient foot bridge, wouldn’t you want to understand why?

So what does listening to some old coot tell you to go skinny-dipping have to do with Magic? It is important to understand the circumstances in order to understand the advice. When it comes to Magic, I always like to keep the following things in mind:

1) Understand the format.

Magic designers try to change the environment with each new set. Something about being written into their job description, I believe. That means there should be a certain expectation with each format that it will have specific nuances that need to be accounted for. Expect to see these nuances in the advice being offered. If these nuances are absent or, in your own opinion, mistaken, be suspicious.

Take the article that I pulled out from more than eight years ago. When this pro tips article was written, Mirage was just premiering. Sealed deck pre-releases weren’t even open to the rest of the country until the introduction of Alliances. There was no pointing system for placement of cards on a print sheet to promote Limited play before then. It wouldn’t be a surprise that many of the colors didn’t support strong enough creatures and spells to limit the deck to less than three colors.

For those not old enough to remember Femerefs and Askari, the idea of mastering a new format is quite applicable to the present. Remember the trepidation of first seeing Mirrodin sealed deck builds with only eleven or twelve creatures? After a fat-heavy Onslaught block, it seemed unnatural not to pack at least seventeen cards that contained the text”Creature.” Even more recently, those that played in the Fifth Dawn online release event this weekend might have found themselves losing with a handful of artifact removal and not enough creatures. It definitely happened to me.

Another facet to understanding the format includes understanding the environment from which the advice emanates. Some decks are designed with a certain metagame in mind that might not match what you face in your regular tournament scene. Some team-based strategies might assume that your teammates or opponents behave a certain way that is different from your experience. Know what environment the advice has been designed for.

The environment is constantly changing. Understand the environment.

2) Everyone is in learn mode.

There is always a short period of time with the infusion of a new set where everyone is still trying to figure out the optimal builds and play strategies. Though there are basic guidelines that can be followed that will allow a strong start, there is no”cookbook” method that will ensure 100% results. For example, in sealed, you can’t always expect to play seventeen lands, twenty-three spells and two colors, but it is a good starting guideline. The onus is on the player to figure out the optimal strategy for that particular expansion.

Testing and experimentation is the primary driver for learning, and, until a format has been proven, expect ideas and theories to change early in a set’s life cycle. What may hold one week may be overcome by a new discovery next week. A pro might offer a good idea, but have no proof to back it up. Some unknown person might provide a key understanding based on two straight solid weeks of testing out a card. If we relied only on the advice of experts, we’d still be draining people’s blood.

Don’t believe blindly. Understand the theory.

3) We’re all human.

Humans are funny critters. Even the most basic task, like tying a shoe, will be performed a hundred different ways with each person claiming their method is the best. What this translates to in the Magic environment is differing play styles, tastes, and card preferences.

No one person has all the right answers. Limited formats provide a perfect illustration. On any given week, you can probably find an article by three different authors on the subject of draft, all claiming their counterpart has made the wrong pick. If these players have all top 8’d in the last few Pro Tours, who is to be believed?

Sometimes it all comes down to a matter of strategy that suits a personal style. Get to know the style of the person offering the advice. This will help in understanding certain choices made by a player.

Better still, understand your own play style. Ever downloaded Kai’s PT-winning deck only to go 0-4 at FNM, profusely declaring it junk? Ever decided to play a mediocre deck just because it was fun to play?

Our preferences color our opinions. Know what they are so that you can divorce them from the ideas presented. Revisiting the article that started this treatise, I will shamefacedly admit that I almost stopped reading it after the first few paragraphs. Based on my own play preferences, I would never attempt any of the strategies quoted. A miniscule amount of guilt at deriding the article without giving it a full review prompted me to continue reading. The tips from the pros quickly morphs from the initial wild statements to a solid discussion on creatures and what key abilities are favored in a Limited environment. If I hadn’t looked beyond my personal preferences, I might not have ever seen this valuable discussion.

Listening to advice is slightly different than implementing advice. Personal play styles are going to dictate performance. If you’re are more comfortable playing one equally viable deck over another, odds are that your performance will be better with the one that suits you better.

Understand others by understanding yourself.

4) We aren’t the pros.

We don’t always understand what we read. I’ll refrain from offering up the joke about Einstein and his pie with a little”e” on it***. Lack of understanding doesn’t immediately deem the advice to be useless. We don’t always have the background and knowledge to come to the same conclusion. Rather than take the advice blindly, though, force yourself to play and understand why the advice is correct, or at least in principle appears to be correct. This won’t always be easy, but you will learn from the process. I think Nate Heiss said it best when he mentioned that he learned more about Magic by playing the most challenging deck he could find than anything else.

When you don’t understand, learn.

Sifting through all this conflicting advice and trying to garner the right answers can be tedious, so I offer one last, simple option: just listen to Mark Rosewater. He correctly predicted that Demonic Consultation was an undervalued card way back in Duelist Issue #7, right alongside Atog, Bazaar of Baghdad, and the laces (Chaoslace, Deathlace, Lifelace, Purelace, and Thoughtlace).


I still haven’t thrown those old Sideboards away yet. Guess some habits are just hard to break.

* For those of you too new to Magic, here’s a tidbit of history. Back in the early 1990s, you had to pay a yearly membership to be a part of the DCI. When sanctioned tournaments started to become popular, the DCI created a free”mana” membership for those who just wanted to play. To give paying customers incentive to keep paying, those members received”Legend” status, which included exclusive issues of the Sideboard magazine, free foreign booster packs and other goodies.

** The Duelist #10, May 1996

*** If you didn’t understand that reference, then I’ve just proven my point.