Modern Methods Of Self-Education

Valeriy Shunkov goes over valuable basics of playing Magic that you can learn through Modern. Find out how you can improve your tournament results in time for StarCityGames.com Open: Sacramento.

I was already done with my match at the Sealed Grand Prix Trial (by the way, it’s weird to play a Sealed GPT for Modern GP) and looked at a friend of mine during the additional turns of his match. He had eight lands (four colors) and Heavy Mattock. The four cards in his hand included Drogskol Reaver, Geistflame, and Ranger’s Guile. He was in a secure position to not lose and would probably able to win that game. Neither happened.

He casually tapped seven lands and played Drogskol Reaver — just to find that his opponent’s Red/White deck had Traitorous Blood (surprise!), while his only untapped land was a Mountain, not a Forest. But okay, he was still able to win.

Third additional turn: his opponent had Vengeful Vampire with a +1/+1 counter; my friend had Drogskol Reaver equipped with Heavy Mattock. By that time I knew it was the second game of the match and my buddy had won the first game.

Your play? Yes, just pass the turn.

The play that actually happened? Attack, block, “I gain ten life and draw two cards.”

Yes, that Vengeful Vampire had already died after first strike, so the “draw two cards” became “drawing extra cards,” a game loss, and an unintentional draw in a match that was already won. The lesson to learn from the situation? Be careful. Every. Single. Second.

Modern and Self-Education

I’m bad player. It’s sad, but it’s true. I’m not stupid, but I make many more technical mistakes than is possible for anyone trying to win seriously in this game. Most of these mistakes are because of my inaccuracy or my lack of concentration. I tap wrong lands, misclick in Magic Online, etc., etc. Recently I’ve realized how much I’m losing and have started systematic upgrade of my own skills. I learned a lot during winter PTQ season, and I’m planning to learn even more.

This article is not just another “mulligan bad hands” article. You should obviously read them all—and actually started using it. I’ve seen many people who promised to avoid keeping bad hands but kept the first one, then the second… Don’t be weak! All these things are easy if you really want to improve. But I’m going to speak about the next level—things that are simple, too, but require more time and effort, especially outside of actual DCI matches.

Playing Modern is the great way to attack your weaknesses—this format is very diverse, and there are many decks that can help you to improve different aspects of your game. You can play many archetypes and study all kinds of strategy.

Concentration and Physical Condition

I’ve already commented about concentration and attention, but there is a special kind of attention-related problem. Probably all good Magic decks are built to be able to recover from a bad game state, so the most dangerous lack of concentration is often concerned with situations where you think that everything is good and thus allow your opponent to take control of the game.

I watched the finals of the PTQ in Saint Petersburg where my teammate Andrey played with Melira against U/W/R Delver. His opponent was a turn from winning when Andrey cast Chord of Calling with X=3. His opponent, while having Remand, after a short musing allowed Chord to resolve. The creature that came into play was Melira, Sylvok Outcast — the last piece of combo. This is an example of how a second of weakness can lead to a very disappointing result.

Attention is going to wane during a long tournament—it’s normal, but you can overcome this problem. And yes, it’s a real problem that’s often underestimated. I have heard many stories that go: “And then I made mistake and lost an important match. So unlucky!” Take it seriously, really! I’m scientist, so I just did an experiment: I played two similar tournaments during a weekend—one where I took great care with my physical condition and another where I didn’t. The difference was huge by the last round. This was probably the reason for my performance at GP Brussels two years ago, when I converted my 6-0 record (without byes) into a depressing 6-3.

There are three key things to keep your attention level up and have a healthy condition during a tournament: fresh air, dark chocolate, and water. Your brain is a very important tool, so there’s no reason to neglect its service requirements. Tournaments are often held in relatively small rooms, so if you feel that the air is stuffy don’t be too lazy to go outside for two minutes after every round. The same goes with food and especially chocolate: it’s bad to be too full because you’ll fall asleep (especially without fresh air), but hunger is equally detrimental. Dark chocolate is an easy thing to carry that is a good pick-me-up to give your brain a wake-up call during a long tournament.

While most people know that they should eat during a tournament, water discipline is still considered a term from Frank Herbert’s “Dune” rather than from being actually practiced at tournaments. Wikipedia says, “Symptoms [of dehydration] may include headaches similar to what is experienced during a hangover, a sudden episode of visual snow, decreased blood pressure (hypotension), and dizziness or fainting when standing up due to orthostatic hypotension… Experiments have shown that dehydration is associated with confusion, fatigue, and negative moods. Mild dehydration, which includes water losses between 1% and 2%, observed in the experiment are comparable to mild dehydration experienced by people in their everyday lives.” Reading this, don’t you remember how you felt during the last round of a Grand Prix on day 1?

I don’t know anything more sloppy than the refusal to find five minutes to buy a drink to protect all those hours spent for testing and traveling to a large tournament. It can be tea, coffee, or even Red Bull, but I still prefer water. The trap is that you’ll rarely become really thirsty before you start having dehydration-related problems. This is why dehydration is underestimated: nobody really thinks about it as a source of fatigue. Don’t get caught, and if your tournament is important for you, take some time to get fresh air, eat dark chocolate, and drink water.

If what I wrote didn’t convince you, ask a judge about working at large tournaments (like a ten-round StarCityGames.com Open). You’ll be surprised by the amount of work that judges do aside from answering rules questions—as this work normally includes standing up for the whole day, judges have a rest schedule and drink a good amount of water. You’re probably less stressed at the tournament than judges, but they can’t lose in the finals so your possible dehydration level is far lower—and you can’t have a rest while your colleagues do your work.

Rules and Mechanics

Speaking of judges, I highly recommend that everyone improves their rules knowledge. Yes, reading the full text of Magic: The Gathering rules from the very beginning to the very end will help you to play better (okay, it’s possible to skip paragraphs about banding and phasing). The easiest example of the importance of rules knowledge is Gifts Ungiven for Unburial Rites and a large creature, but there are much thinner situations that could each give you an edge or cause frustrating defeat.

Recently, I won a game where I had Thalia, Guardian of Thraben, and my opponent didn’t realize that his Isochron Scepter doesn’t say “copy spell” but “copy card; cast the copy.” He had no additional mana to pay for Thalia and lost. Modern is full of different mechanics that are sometimes very complicated. Returning to the Chord of Calling example, I was in a situation where my opponent had two flipped Delver of Secrets and Steppe Lynx, while I had Viscera Seer on the battlefield and Chord of Calling with X=4 on the stack. I originally intended to find Murderous Redcap to deal with one Delver, but when my opponent surprised me by his refusal to kill Viscera Seer in response to Chord, I found Orzhov Pontiff and used the strangest Magic mechanic of the past ten years (haunt, obviously) to annihilate his entire team.

The deck I played is possibly the most mechanics-filled Modern deck: Melira Township. Here’s the version used by Fabian to get second place in a recent Magic Online PTQ (his only loss was to the semi-mirror in the finals).

I played that PTQ with nearly the same list, and two of my three losses were because of my fatigue. I woke up early, so playing until 4 AM after a day at work was not very good idea. Yes, I did the exact thing that I’m encouraging you to avoid, but I desperately need more experience before Grand Prix Turin, so I took it.

I like this deck a lot and there’s a big chance that I’ll play it in Italy, but it’s relatively complicated to play and even more difficult to tune for the actual metagame. There are only three free slots in the maindeck (they’re filled now by Aven Mindcensor, Thalia, and Spellskite), and there’s a ton of options that I’d like to see in the sideboard. Aside the fact that it’s impossible to have many copies of most non-creature spells, the actual number of useful creatures to consider is about twenty or even more.

Artifact hate is a sort of exception because you should play enough copies to be able to draw it naturally with Grafdigger’s Cage in play. So, Maelstrom Pulse or Gleeful Sabotage would be good additions to the mix of Qasali Pridemage and Harmonic Sliver.

Other creatures that were not in Fabian’s list:

Withered Wretch – I heard that Flame Jab still exists, especially at large paper tournaments. Previously I used a pair of Nihil Spellbombs, but I realized that one creature is better than two non-creature spells.

Baneslayer Angel – Angel is surprisingly effective against aggressive decks and Jund, but I still don’t know if it’s worth a slot in the 75. A second Reveillark is also a possible substitute.

Nekrataal – Sometimes something cheaper than Shriekmaw is needed or something targetable by Reveillark; as you have some removal in the deck anyway, two Dismember would also be a nice addition for the mirror and Splinter Twin.

Eternal Witness or maybe Pit KeeperPit Keeper isn’t so flexible, but Chord of Calling for two is easier than for three. Witness-like cards are generally better in the heavier version (with Wall of Roots) while this deck needs additional tempo more than additional card advantage;

Tidehollow Sculler – Maybe alongside a few Thoughtseizes, but it’s sadly impossible to tap Thoughtseize for convoke.

Saffi Eriksdotter – I’m not sure if she’s actually good in the current metagame, but you can read John Guttermuth report about his experience with Saffi. An important thing I want to say about Josh’s deck: Noble Hierarch is strictly superior to Avacyn’s Pilgrim because exalted actually matters.

Mikaeus, the Unhallowed and Sun Titan – Both of them are great and Mikaeus allows you to combo off with opposing Melira in play, but I don’t believe that they’re worth the effort needed to stick them into play in the deck without Wall of Roots.

Fine-tuning of this deck is complicated, so I highly recommend you write a relatively detailed sideboarding guide—it will seriously help you determine which creatures are worth sideboard slots and which are not. Moreover, boarding out is a complicated thing, too, so it’s important to avoid mismatches in siding in and out.

Math of Winning and Losing

One more thing that is usually a weak point of relatively new Magic players is they feel a necessity to use math. There are many situations where fluent calculations are required, but the two most important are Storm-like combo decks and counter races. It’s even harder when you’re forced to do that math for two or more upcoming turns, taking possible directions of the game’s progress into account. Here’s the point at which you should be familiar with some basics of probability calculation and mathematical statistics.

A simple exercise: take your last limited deck, shuffle it, and start putting cards from the top into the graveyard and predicting if the next one is land or nonland. The goal is to predict as many as possible. There’s a simple way to hit exactly 24/40 (assuming your deck has 17 lands), but some training will probably allow you to hit 26/40 consistently. The next step is to predict land/creature/non-creature, and the next goal is 30/40.

Why would you spend your time on this? Imagine: you’re going to lose the game if you don’t draw an answer to an opposing threat in three turns. You have five cards as unconditional answers, three more if you’d do a specific thing (say, not chump-block), and two more if one of your next three topdecks is a land. This is a situation where you can plan your action on your outs. Moreover, similar game states may involve choices like “play this way to not lose in a few turns and then hope to draw better than your opponent or play another way to end the game in two turns with some probability of winning.” Like this:

Craig Jones Topdeck of the Century

There are three ways to become more familiar with mathematics in Magic while playing Modern:

Dark Burn – This deck requires careful planning, knowing your resources and relations among your cards, life total, and time. Playing this deck with precise study of Mike Flores excellent The Philosophy of Fire will definitely help you improve your results.

Storm Combo – In contrast with Splinter Twin-like combos (where you’re collecting all the combo pieces in your hand and then going off), Storm-like combos include drawing cards during the process so you must be good at predicting your topdecks. You must clearly understand which is better: to go off right now or to wait for the next turn, taking a risk that your opponent will have a hasty creature to kill you out of nowhere or some discard spell to ruin your hand (I actually meant “Bloodbraid Elf cascading into Thoughtseize”).

Playing any regular deck against any combo deck (Tron with Unburial Rites is counted too) – I call it “playing with the fear of sudden death.” Playing a “fair” game of Magic is very different from playing against an opponent who could easily assemble instant win. Another subtype of “playing with the fear of sudden death” is playing Affinity against a deck with unknown amount of Creeping Corrosion.

Modern also offers more interesting opportunities for the practical study of the basics of Magic theory, like U/W/R Delver with sideboarded Volcanic Fallouts (that kill every creature in the deck aside from Steppe Lynx) as a representation of the “Who’s the Beatdown” concept. It’s impossible to mention them all in one article, so my final advice is: read as many Magic theory articles as you can; they’re really useful!

Good-bye and good luck to everybody playing this weekend in Sacramento and next weekend at the StarCityGames.com Invitational in Baltimore!

Valeriy Shunkov

@amartology on Twitter

amarto on Magic Online