More Ways To Win – Changing Priorities

Ashley had to miss States this past weekend due to a flat tire, but it gave her an opportunity to reflect. Read about the deck she would’ve played as well as the position of cards like Consecrated Sphinx, Dismember, and Doom Blade.

It seems to me that this might be one of those articles you’ll either love or hate. Indeed, it is always a risk to talk about things on a Magic site that are only tangentially related to Magic. On the other hand, writers are often told to “write what you know,” so here goes.

I wish I could be writing about my performance at the State Championships this past weekend with my weapon of choice, a Solar Flare deck with some nice personal touches that I felt would serve me well, but though I’ll share my decklist and the reasoning behind it, I unfortunately didn’t get to play in States this year.

I was very upset and depressed about this but, just as with anything in life that you can’t change, I had to let it go in order to look forward to whatever comes next.

As far as adversity goes, this weekend was certainly not the worst. With every intention of going to both FNM and States to grind for every Planeswalker Point I could, I spent every free moment thinking about and testing Standard. I was supposed to leave for Quarterstaff Games, located in Burlington, VT around noontime. I had an appointment up that way, and Jamie and I were planning on having a nice lunch afterwards at Denny’s. It was nothing fancy, but I thought it was going to be an enjoyable afternoon. However, Jamie had been waiting for several days on the delivery of a leopard gecko, and it had apparently gotten lost somewhere along the way.

So she had to stay home to wait on a delivery that might not even arrive, and I didn’t want to leave for Burlington without her. I came up with the bright idea of rescheduling my appointment so that we could leave later in the day. I couldn’t have known this, but this slight change in plans would make my attending States impossible.

You see, on the way to FNM that night, in a nasty torrential downpour, we had a flat tire. Such a simple thing really—it turns out that it was probably due to not checking our tire pressure often enough. The roads around here are awful after the two floods that we’ve had this year, and I hit a bad spot of pavement with my improperly inflated tire. Next thing we knew, our Friday and Saturday plans went right out the window.

If only we’d had that problem earlier in the day, we might’ve reached Tire Warehouse before they closed. But we couldn’t have known that a slight change in plans would’ve put a wrench in our weekend. After all, we could’ve had a flat any time, right? However, what was our fault was doing all this traveling to play Magic and not checking our tires, having AAA, or even a decent spare. In this life, an ounce of prevention really is worth a pound of cure…

I’ve done a lot of thinking this weekend as I hung out at home, while all my friends were out playing Magic at States. I really want to share some of these thoughts with all of you, but I feel like I should throw a Magic bone first before this train completely derails the tracks. Therefore, let’s take a look at the deck I was going to play this weekend for both FNM and the State Championships.

The metagame of VT States was not going to be some unknown thing, and I imagine that all over the country the expected decks showed up in force. I was looking to beat Mono Red, Tempered Steel, Wolf Run Ramp, and other Solar Flare decks in particular.

I took out Dismember. It’s great in a vacuum but not particularly exciting against any of the above decks. I like it best against the Birds of Paradise of the Birthing Pod decks to keep them from their most dangerous openings but, in practice, you rarely have a Dismember on turn 1 for them. Even if you ran a full four Dismembers, you’d only start with one in your opening hand about 45% of the time. Nearly all the rest of the time, you’d prefer Doom Blade. Thus, it was easy to make the switch. I don’t want dead cards against Titans and Sphinxes.

On the subject of Consecrated Sphinx, I had bought a bunch of them for $4 and tried to convince people they’d be good a while ago, but few of the locals listened. Now I think the environment has shifted, and Sphinx is mediocre, and, similarly, people are reluctant to give them up. I’ve seen them in plenty of lists lately where I’ve felt they shouldn’t be.

In every metagame, there are tests for card quality. A good example of this was what Patrick Chapin called “The Jace Test” and then later “The Dismember Test.” When Jace, the Mind Sculptor or Dismember is dominant, then you need to play cards with that in mind. That’s why Phyrexian Obliterator is every bit as bad now that Jace is gone as it was before. You spend a full four mana, but your opponent only spends 1-3 on a Dismember. The future looks brighter for Obliterator in a world of Doom Blades, but not by much; there’s still Mana Leak and Oblivion Ring and so on. It is a basic part of tempo that you want your threats to cost less than your opponent’s answers.

The trick though is that your opponents are also thinking individuals, and if people start playing all kinds of creatures that pass “The Dismember Test,” then maybe it’s time to play fewer Dismembers (and then “The Dismember Test” becomes less important). Also, most of the control decks are running black splashes now, making a card like Dismember far less necessary. Brad Nelson already pointed this out here, and I wasn’t sure if I agreed with him at first, but I’ve since come around.

It should be clear that if our current test is “The Doom Blade Test” then Consecrated Sphinx gets much worse. If you’re just stacking creatures up against removal, I’d rather have a Wurmcoil Engine or even a Grave Titan against the burn of Red Deck Wins; a Grave Titan or Sun Titan against the Dispatches/Dismembers/Oblivion Rings of Tempered Steel; a Grave Titan or maybe Sun Titan against Solar Flare’s Doom Blades/Dismembers/Oblivion Rings/Day of Judgments; and Grave Titan against Wolf Run Ramp’s Beast Withins. Honestly, there aren’t a lot of matchups right now where I’d prefer Consecrated Sphinx.

That being said, the Sphinx is not really a bad card overall. It’s just that Magic is a game where cards are good contextually, and we can be doing better things right now.

So I’m not running Sphinx; I’m not running Dismember; and I’ve maxed out on Doom Blades. Once everyone adapts to increased Doom Blades, we’ll have to adapt too, but, for now, I think Grave Titan is a sweet spot to be in.

I’m not running Liliana of the Veil. It was a sad cut to have to make, but Liliana isn’t very good against Mono Red, Wolf Run Ramp, or the mirror. Without Liliana, Sun Titan doesn’t do much for us. People aren’t playing as many Day of Judgments, which is one of the primary answers to a resolved Grave Titan, and he passes “The Doom Blade Test” or “The Liliana of the Veil Test,” if you’d rather, with flying colors. He is also randomly good in other situations, like against Traitorous Blood.

Dissipate may seem odd, but I was very happy with it, even in matchups where I thought it would underperform, like against Mono Red. It is just so key to beating those Wolf Run players who wait to beat a Mana Leak or players who think you’re out of countermagic. It’s great against Chandra’s Phoenix and flashback cards. Between Mana Leaks, Dissipates, and Snapcaster Mages, you’ll feel like you have infinite counters some games!

As for the rest of the deck, it’s pretty self-explanatory:

I’m running one Unburial Rites for game 1 of the mirror and to have more threats in the matchups where I need them. It was the card I was probably least pleased with in the maindeck, but some games, it also really felt necessary, so one is probably a good number.

Timely Reinforcements is really good, not just against Mono Red, but against the early-game Viridian Emissaries and Solemn Simulacrums of decks like Wolf Run. You’ll sometimes hate having them in the control matchups, but in the matchups where you need them, you’ll REALLY need them. I went about 60-40 against Mono Red, but you’ll need to resolve at least one Timely Reinforcements in most of the games you win.

Day of Judgment is not great right now, but you’ll want a couple, and you can flash them back with Snapcaster Mages if you end up needing more.

Lastly, I cut some black sources because, without Liliana, we no longer need to hit double black on turn 3.

I’m pretty sure the sideboard was still off a bit. A basic plan is this:

Vs. Mono Red

+1 Timely Reinforcements
+3 Celestial Purge
-1 Unburial Rites
-3 Dissipate (even though I said I didn’t mind this in the Mono Red match, it’s likely still your best cut)

Vs. Tempered Steel

+1 Day of Judgment
+3 Revoke Existence
-1 Unburial Rites
-3 Timely Reinforcements (most of their guys fly)

Vs. Wolf Run Ramp

Here the main deck is pretty solid, but you might consider taking out a Forbidden Alchemy for a Timely Reinforcements or something of that nature.

Vs. the mirror

+2 Jace, Memory Adept
+2 Negate
+2 Surgical Extraction
-3 Timely Reinforcements
-2 Doom Blade
-1 Unburial Rites (Games 2 and 3 they’ll likely have their own Extractions)

As for the last sideboard card, that extra Unburial Rites, I am pretty sure that’s wrong, but I didn’t think it was a bad idea to have more win conditions for certain matchups. I don’t think that’s something you have to be super concerned with though.

As for how to play the matchups, that could be an article all on its own, but I think it’s fairly straightforward. I’d like to take a moment to talk about the Wolf Run Ramp matchup though.

It is absolutely essential that you use your Mana Leaks before they can afford to play around them, but you also can’t afford to let a Primeval Titan resolve, so you’ll have to find the right balance from game to game to get the most value out of them without leaving yourself open to the Primeval. Without a resolved Titan, it is pretty easy to stop their threats.

However, Garruk, Primal Hunter is another card you need to be wary of in particular. The extra countermagic makes stopping their best cards much easier, especially since Dissipate always works.

You’ll want to clear the board of all their creatures before they get Kessig Wolf Run, so don’t be afraid to let them ramp or draw a card by blocking Viridian Emissaries and Solemn Simulacrums with Soldier tokens. With four maindeck Doom Blades and Snapcasters to get them back, you can be a little more cavalier about using them; just don’t leave yourself without an answer to Inkmoth Nexus.

This is also the matchup where you’re likely to notice the biggest difference between Grave Titan and Sun Titan. Give it a try; you’ll see what I mean!

Now my article’s title kind of holds a double meaning because, as the metagame evolves, we have to change our deckbuilding priorities, but our lives our evolving also, right this minute, and so too do our life’s priorities. This is what I was thinking, as I was forced by a flat tire to take a breath from playing in one tournament after another to examine recent developments of my life and the current road I’m on.

I wonder how many of you can relate to playing Magic as a form of escapism, a diversion from some of the stresses of life that have you down. I think all hobbies are like this to some extent, but gaming can be a real addiction for some, to the point that it completely takes over your life. Todd Anderson article “Constructed Criticism: Living the Dream of Pro Magic” which can be found here drew a lot of controversy because it challenged some ideas we have about our priorities.

It’s really a quite complicated issue when you think about it, the question “Where is the best place that I can put my energy right now?” I think some people were bothered by the idea that a game should be put above a job, while others felt that he was also putting it above his relationship. Most people generally feel that having a job and having a relationship are more important than playing a game. So wasn’t Todd’s article perhaps revealing something telling? Some of us are addicted to this game.

We all know someone (and maybe it’s ourselves) who has to make a choice between food or Magic, and they choose Magic. They can pay their bills or order a box of Innistrad. These are things that I would say are Not Good ™. However, when we’re looking at complex things like priorities, sometimes we have to dig a lot deeper. Sometimes it is not the game that is doing us harm. Sometimes it is our job; sometimes it is our relationship.

Now, I’m not trying to say this is or was the case with Todd (and please forgive me for using you as an example!); in fact, I think there are clues that this wasn’t the case. For example: his schedule consisted of only 24 hours where he is presumably making something very close to minimum wage. Now he had just barely won $20,000. That is a LOT of money; in fact, it is a life-changing amount of money in a way that I can particularly appreciate. But whether you agree that that is a large enough sum to turn your life around, just look at some simple math. If you only worked 24 hours a week for a year, you’d have to make $16 an hour just to match that amount. Supposing that week was unusual and Todd was working 40 hours a week, he’d still have to make $9.61 an hour, almost $2.50 more than the minimum wage for Todd’s state.

The average person is not going to make money playing Magic. I’ve met a lot of Pro Tour aspirants (and even regular Pro Tour players) who are not making close to enough money even to consider playing Magic equal to working a job. Even the world’s top players, for example Jon Finkel, who made almost $300,000 from Magic, could’ve made the same amount (or more) money from putting the same amount (or less) time in (and, in fact, he did). So it’s not really logical to play Magic for the money. There are better ways to make money. We play Magic because it’s fun.

However, if your choice was between delivering pizzas or playing Magic and you’d make the same amount of money, are you honestly telling me that you wouldn’t choose playing Magic? And given that playing Magic is probably more fun than delivering pizzas, how can anyone chastise Todd for making a really somewhat obvious choice that anyone would’ve made?

Do you think making money at Magic is an unreliable source of income? Absolutely! Having to win in order to pay your bills can be a lot of pressure. However, many of us won’t ever win $20,000 playing Magic. Todd might actually be able to because he already did, at least once. So we know it’s at least possible, but how would we know it was even possible, if we didn’t try?

On the flip side of this issue, we have people who unreasonably think they should’ve already made the Pro Tour yet they rarely (if ever) even win their local FNMs. In Olivier Ruel “Triggers for Success” which can be found here he outlines the steps one takes to become a Pro Player. Of course it’s possible to skip a level, but it’s rare. It’s really rare to skip more than one level. So take things a step at a time; you have to win FNM before you play in a Pro Tour Top 8.

Another word of advice about this is that you really have to trust statistics. If you lose every tournament, you can’t just be unlucky. The thing about skill is that it’s an understanding about what’s really going on, so if you don’t have skill, you can’t fully understand what’s going on, and if you don’t fully understand what’s going on, it looks an awful lot like you’re just getting unlucky.

I’ve played games where it felt like I should’ve had the tools to win, and yet I could feel the game somehow slipping away. These are crucial times that we can try to increase our awareness so that we can understand why it is we are really losing.

Mana screw is a common complaint, and players do lose because they’re unlucky and couldn’t hit their third land. However, like I said, statistics don’t lie. If you play enough games and get mana screwed often, then the problem might not be that you are unlucky; it could be that you aren’t running enough mana, or the right mix of non-basics, or you’re not mulliganing correctly, and so on.

The point I’m trying to make is that we have to be realistic about what’s possible in our lives, but we often don’t know what’s possible until we try, and we’re fed a message about how quitters never win and that we can achieve anything. Here’s a difficult question: Is there a point when a player can look in the mirror and honestly say, “I’m never going to make the Pro Tour because I’ll never be good enough?” And is it helpful to do so? What if they’re wrong? What if they quit right before they have a breakthrough? What if every famous person who ever made a difference did that?

But what if you put so much into Magic, into believing that you can achieve anything, and you make all kinds of sacrifices? Then you fail.

Somewhere, it all comes back to balance. A lot of people liked my response to Todd’s article where I said that life is not about any one thing, that it has a lot of moving parts that have to flow together. This is not an article about giving up on Magic because you never win. It’s not about convincing you that you’re not good enough. There is no formula where anyone can just say that you’ll never make it, but the stark reality is that some of you, most of you, won’t make it. Most of you aren’t good enough.

So how can you square things in your life with your jobs and relationships? You won’t know if you can be one of the success stories if you don’t try, but you statistically aren’t likely to be one of the success stories. So I’d suggest being careful; that’s all.

I don’t think criticizing Todd for quitting his job after he just won a year’s pay is warranted. Imagine what an affirmation it must be to put so much effort into a game and finally have it pay off. This must be very encouraging indeed. However, most of us have not received these kinds of encouragements, so while we should grind when we can, it’s important that we don’t burn our bridges or quit our jobs and that we keep our priorities straight.

Each of us must balance work and play. It’s ideal when the two are the same thing, but that’s usually not the case. If all you do is work all the time, but you never get to have any fun, then what’s the point? But if you JUST play games and don’t take care of your responsibilities, other parts of your life are going to suffer.

This has gotten a lot more philosophical than I intended, so I’d like to look at a couple of real examples to help illustrate what I mean.

The first is that my father used to ridicule me for playing fantasy games. He used to make mean jokes or suggest that I should be doing something else with my time. It seemed like every week I was coming home with hundreds of dollars’ worth of cards: Moxes, Time Walks, and so on, but he just couldn’t believe it. After all, I was still in school; we were really poor; and I only had paper route money to spend on Magic cards.

One day I came home and flashed a wad of cash at him and proudly declared that I had sold a card. His eyes went really big, and he said, “You sold some cards?” To which, I answered, “No, I sold A card!” (It was a Time Walk.) I desperately wanted my father’s approval, and this didn’t really do it (nothing really did), but he definitely seemed to look at playing Magic as something more legitimate, more justified. Mind you, it wasn’t important that I enjoyed it, that I made friends playing it, and that it kept me out of trouble. In fact, Magic helped me get through my parents’ divorce.

All that made the endeavor worthwhile in my father’s eyes was that I could make money at it. Life is about so much more than this.

For my second example, we have to come all the way forward to the present.

Big things have happened to me this year, and I feel a change coming in the air. While I don’t believe that the Mayan calendar rolling over will usher in the end of the world, 2012 is poised to be the biggest year of my life, and not just my life up to this point but possibly EVER. I stand at a crossroads where a decision not just COULD change my life forever but certainly WILL change my life forever. I apologize for having to be a little vague here, but suffice it to say that this weekend opened my mind to something I hadn’t realized for some time.

When I was young, games were an escape. I had a lot of problems that I ignored; I underachieved to a great extent; and I didn’t give enough thought to my future. There were times where Magic definitely saved me from despair, but there were also times in my life where drastic measures were necessary, and I was too busy thinking about metagames and sideboards. Like I alluded to earlier, it’s all about balance.

I’ve come to find that one of the biggest reasons that someone’s life sucks is that they don’t have their priorities straight. If they tended more to their relationship instead of their job or their job instead of their games and, yes, sometimes even their games instead of their job, they could be happier people.

So, here I am, on the brink of something HUGE. In fact, it is so big that it is impossible to overstate it. At a time when I thought I’d conquered every fear, something suddenly stands before me more terrifying than anything I’ve ever known, a barrier that I can’t see past, an unknown so great that the farthest reaches of space seem less mysterious. And I’m doing it all over again.

Here I am, years removed from my childhood, and I’m still using games to divert my attention from my fears.

There are other issues, of course, like what I mentioned earlier: Can I look myself in the mirror and honestly say that I have what it takes to play on the Pro Tour? This requires a serious assessment. The statistics don’t lie. I’ve won 67% of every match I’ve ever played, a number that has scarcely changed at all from the very beginning to the present, regardless of the level of competition I’ve entered. In Magic, not just decks are contextual but play skill too. Looking at those numbers, can I really say that I’m getting better at Magic, year-to-year, compared to my peers? And if not, is that percentage “good enough?” And if it’s not good enough, do I still play Magic without competitive aspirations just because it is a fun game?

Let me reassure you, I’m not going to quit Magic. It is far too important to me for so many reasons that I think it’ll always be some part of my life. It’s just that, in finding balance, I have to figure out how much a part.

I didn’t get to play States this weekend, and that made me sad, but it also made me realize that I have been cowering before the fearful specter hanging over me, trying to ignore its presence through near endless games of Magic. The days ahead should be filled with wonder and anticipation, and they can be, if I remain courageous and true. However, it feels like for this to be possible, I have to somehow become a superhuman version of myself. Though I still expect to play a lot of Magic now and in the future, I can’t let this distract me from the work that’s going to take.

This is what I said to a friend of mine this morning:

“How many of us know that we have a destiny? But it’s one thing to imagine a destiny years from now, quite another to discover that it’s snuck up to your doorstep.”

Always remember to keep your priorities straight. Magic may be the greatest game ever made, but there are wonders and mysteries even greater still. Don’t judge others on their priorities. You can only look in the mirror and judge yourself. We’re all different, and we have different needs, and, just like metagames, those needs evolve. And you know what? That’s okay.

Here’s to hoping that you all find More Ways to Win… not just at Magic, but at life, the hardest metagame of all.