Off The Beaten Path

Check out the crazy strategy that Brad came up with while preparing for Standard at Grand Prix Cincinnati this weekend and let him know your thoughts about it in the comments!

I’ve become known as quite the unique deck designer over the past couple of years. Oftentimes I’ll take some crazy deck to a Grand Prix or SCG Invitational and do surprisingly well with it. It isn’t surprising to me since I’ve spent weeks working on the deck, but at first sight most of my decks look like I picked up a random pile of cards from my Standard box and signed up for the event. In actuality, I’m not that strong of a deckbuilder. I don’t just create things out of thin air or find amazing synergies that others have missed.

My true talents lie in my ability to predict a metagame and understand what decks will be most successful. With this information, I envision how my entire tournament is going to play out and what decks I will have to beat in the late rounds to win an event.

Another asset I have is figuring out exactly how to attack the best decks in the format. Just like school work, I spend hours researching the Standard card pool and every deck in the format, searching for a missing link. I try to find anything that will allow me to have an edge over my opponents.

This week I’m going to let you in on one of my thought processes going into Grand Prix Cincinnati and introduce you to the wackiest tournament theory I’ve ever thought of. I do not want to instantly discourage you, but I will not actually be executing this game plan. It’s just one of the more interesting things that I’ve thought about in a while, and I’m very curious to hear what you guys think of it.

Also, don’t try this at home!

Over the past three weeks I’ve participated in three Standard Invitational Qualifiers throughout Virginia and North Carolina.

I thought I was playing the best deck in the format at each and every one of these tournaments. Now, it isn’t that unique for me to be thinking, speaking, acting, or even dreaming in hyperbole, but I don’t actually think it was my fault this time. Standard is in a very unique place right now.

Every deck in the format is good! They are all efficient at what they do, and each and every one of them attacks on a different axis. There really isn’t a best deck in the format. This is exactly what Wizards has been trying to do for a very long time. Every style of deck is showcased and can be justified for playing in any event.

Do you agree? Each and every person I have talked to about this doesn’t.

"I really like my Esper Control list."

"G/R Monsters just has too many good matchups to not play!"

"Nobody understands how good U/W Devotion actually is."

Everyone I’ve discussed this with says the deck they’re playing is the best deck in the format and explains exactly why this is true. Players getting invested in the decks they play with isn’t exactly news, but usually tournament results overrule personal opinions and prove which decks are actually good. With so many tournaments these days, you would think that there would be a large enough sample size to have evidence of which deck is actually the best, but each and every one has been winning. There really isn’t evidence that proves that any hierarchy exists.

The reason for this is exactly how the format operates. Every deck is powerful and does some specific thing extremely well. The edges you get do not come from the deck itself, but rather the cards choices you make, the way you sideboard, and the lines you take. This format is actually extremely skill intensive. It’s just very easy to miss the mistakes and in turn think everything that happened was due to variance.

I had a conversation about a month ago with Todd Anderson about what the most skill-intensive card in Standard is. My first guess was an opponent’s Jace, Architect of Thought due to all the "rock and a hard place" scenarios it presents, but Todd quickly corrected me with Temples as his answer. I instantly agreed with him. Deck manipulation at any power level takes some sense of skill, but adding in the tempo loss they create makes them much more difficult to play. Not only do you have to know which turn is best to play them, but you have to know what to do with the cards you scry and how to process the information you have.

Do you scry before you attack or after? Do you wait until turn 2 to play your Temple so you have better information about what your opponent is playing? Do you scry to the bottom in the hopes of finding sideboard cards? Do you scry a good spell away in hopes of making your next land drop?

Almost every deck in the format plays these extremely complex lands. Every player is put to a decision on turn 1 of the game because they play scry lands. You know what other land almost every deck plays?

Mutavault is the most oppressive card I’ve ever seen in a Standard format. That’s because the card is unbelievably good. Mutavault allows a deck to play enough lands to cast five-drops and also not suffer from flooding out due to running such a high land count. This makes the format much more aggressive than normal due to the fact that when players don’t draw their bigger spells, they end up attacking with Mutavault to get in some damage.

Mutavault causes some difficult early game decisions in the sense that it doesn’t actually cast many of the format’s best cards. This often leaves players debating mulliganing due to the fact that they cannot cast all their spells because they have one too many Mutavault in their hand. This does not always mean their hand is bad, but it can be severely punished if the correct lands are not drawn in time. It also means that since they’re forced to draw more lands that Mutavault will almost always play only one role in the game, which is just attacking.

With so many decisions being made in the early turns of the game, oftentimes a snowball effect will occur. One bad decision will spiral out of control and cause for the entire game to be lost due to just how punishing this format is. This is because every deck is very good at what it does. Every deck has a proactive game plan, and if they have no reason to worry about what their opponent is doing, they can continue to build an unstoppable board presence. This format isn’t about controlling players; rather, it’s about throwing a timely wrench into their plans and slowing them down long enough to execute your own game plan.

Since my belief is Standard is extremely skill intensive, playing a deck I know is the most important thing. I can tailor it to the specific metagame I predict will show up, but for the most part it’s impossible to bring something rogue to an event like Grand Prix Cincinnati. There just isn’t a great way to attack the metagame as a whole that would be better than something already in rotation.

What if you didn’t have to attack the entire format? What if you could position yourself in the tournament to only play a specific portion of the metagame going into the event? Would that change your deck choice?

A few years ago I played a spicy number called "Hoof There It Is" at Grand Prix Charleston. My first round in the tournament ended up in an unintentional draw, which turned out to be the best case scenario for me. The deck I played was designed to prey on U/W Flash, and I ended up playing that matchup for six straight rounds. I didn’t drop a single game.

This also happened to me very recently at Grand Prix Richmond. It was rather frustrating in the short term, but it ended up being extremely beneficial for me throughout the entire tournament. I was playing RUG Twin and got to play good matchups every time I was paired against someone who also already had a draw.

This got me to brainstorming. Is it possible to go into a Grand Prix with the intention to pick up an early draw? Is it possible that if done correctly it can actually increase your equity in an event? There are a ton of variables to consider.

How do you get the initial draw?

Ask? The best way to initiate this strategy is to simply ask your first opponent if they would like to draw. I believe most players would not agree to participate in this since a draw on day 1 acts like a loss when trying to make day 2. There’s an argument to be made that because I personally am massaging the idea of this that my opponent may be more inclined to draw with me as opposed to someone else, but I don’t think the percentage goes up by that much.

If your opponent does not agree with this, you will have to beat them. No matter what they’re playing, you will have to find a way to win. Once you secure the victory, you simply ask them if they would like to draw once again. There’s a nonzero chance they again turn this down, but I think the odds are extremely low. The only way you turn this down is if you’re hoping to dodge Sphinx’s Revelation decks and know that will be what you play all day if you agree.

The only deck I put on declining the offer would be U/W Devotion since I think their matchup against Sphinx’s Revelation decks tends to be slightly on the losing end.

What will the draw bracket look like?

Standard has a very diverse metagame, but only a handful of decks actually end up in the draw bracket. Sphinx’s Revelation decks take an extremely long time to finish the game and often take twice that amount when in a mirror match. They usually don’t draw with other decks in the format due to those decks not having the ability to "catch up" in card advantage when things are going poorly. What this means is many players not playing with Sphinx’s Revelation will often concede to the second Sphinx’s Revelation since they already see the writing on the wall and would rather get to the next game. This isn’t the case in a mirror match since usually players can come back from bad board positions due to the nature of the deck. There are also a handful of players out there brave enough to show up with U/W Elixir of Immortality decks that will have even a higher chance to end up in the draw bracket than their Esper counterparts.

This does not mean that only Sphinx’s Revelation decks will make up the draw bracket. It’s very easy to see decks like Mono-Black Devotion as well as B/W Midrange can end up drawing with Revelation decks due to their ability to go toe to toe with blue-based card advantage. This can cause very long games and end up in a draw. The same can go for decks like G/R Monsters and Mono-Blue Devotion, but I don’t think it will be as frequent.

It’s important to consider what the draw bracket metagame might look like. These percentages are completely made up, but they are what I would guess off the top of my head.

Esper Control: 55%
U/W Control: 10%
Mono-Black Devotion & B/W Midrange: 10%
U/W Devotion: 15%
G/R Monsters: 5%
Mazes End: 5%

As you can see, the draw bracket will theoretically not showcase any decks like R/W Burn, R/W Devotion, Mono-Red Aggro, Mono-Black Aggro, or any other aggressive strategy. This means that the projected metagame becomes much more restricted and thus easier to attack.

How big will the draw bracket be?

The next important thing to figure out is if the draw bracket will be large enough to justify taking an early draw. You not only need enough players in the event to increase the amount of unintentional draws that occur, but you also must be in a format that has slow decks. Both should be in place for Cincinnati since it’s a Standard Grand Prix that is centrally located and a lot of players will be playing Sphinx’s Revelation in it.

One of the biggest misunderstandings of the draw bracket is that it gets increasingly smaller as the tournament goes on. This is true in the sense that there are fewer players in it, but not compared to the rest of the players also doing well in the event. Of course there won’t be many players in the X-0-1 draw bracket if there are only a couple undefeated players, but the X-1-1 bracket should be fairly plump. So if you end up being forced to play up or down in a bad matchup and lose, you should be able to softly fall back into good matchups again.

How bad is a draw?

One of the most dangerous things about this strategy is if the tournament ends up being huge. If the tournament gets too large, a draw will turn into a loss. This could cause you to only be able to lose a single round in the entire tournament. It is difficult to say that this is just the case from this point forward since Magic tournaments have been getting bigger and bigger. If the tournament breaks a certain threshold, this strategy loses all of its potential advantages.

What decks will overperform?

The most important aspect of this entire strategy is trying to figure out which decks will do the best in the event. This isn’t important if your goal is to just finish in the money, but I’m always looking for another Standard Grand Prix Top 8. Since my only goal is to win the event, it’s important to figure out exactly which decks will rise to the top of the standings.

Like I said earlier, every deck has a shot on any given Sunday, but the human dynamic does change some elements. I’m certain that there’s a fairly high appeal to playing Esper Control right now. Not only has it been doing well as of late, but many of the game’s brightest minds are championing it. This means that the best in the world will probably play it, as well their loyal listeners. The fact that I also feel that the deck is very good right now leads me to believe that it will be one of the highest performing decks this weekend.

If this is the case, then finding a deck to ride out the draw bracket gets much more appealing.

What’s the deck?

Now we come to the question of the hour. Is there actually a deck that fits the bill for this strategy? Like I said at the beginning of the article, I did not actually massage this theory all that much, so I don’t have the perfect tool ready. My gut tells me that the best deck for this scenario is a hyperaggressive mono-red deck with four copies of Mutavault. Surprisingly enough, Patrick Sullivan has been working on a great Mono-Red Aggro deck that perfectly fits this strategy.

Mono-Red Aggro is well positioned against Esper Control right now due to the fact that they run upward of twelve scry lands. These lands help out in many matchups in the metagame, but not against Mono-Red Aggro. Playing a Burning-Tree Emissary deck is the exact way to punish these control decks right now. Sure, they have a game plan against aggressive decks, but they don’t have the advantage.

The downside to playing a deck like Mono-Red Aggro is how bad matchups like G/R Monsters, U/W Devotion, and R/W Devotion are. It’s often too difficult to get through a long tournament without playing these decks since they’re so popular and good, so Mono-Red Aggro will only get you so far. This is why you need the extra draw so that you can hopefully dodge all of these decks for the entire tournament.

Since our plan is to get into the draw bracket to play our good matchups at a higher frequency, it’s in our best interest to pre-sideboard.

Again, I didn’t put too much time into this decklist, but it’s where I would start.

Another angle of attack could be Maze’s End due to how good of a control matchup it has. The only issue with this strategy is how badly the deck gets beaten by cards like Gray Merchant of Asphodel, which can also end up in the draw bracket. You also cannot beat R/W Burn, which has been picking up in popularity. The biggest fear with this deck is that you won’t be able to get that initial draw and potentially play a bad matchup right out of the gates and end your tournament. At least with Mono-Red Aggro you have the potential to simply run over anyone.

Like I said from the beginning, I will not be executing this game plan this weekend. I don’t honestly think it’s strong enough to give up the potential of just winning every match, but at the same time it was something I spent most of the week thinking about. Please let me know what you think about the strategy and if you have any input that could make it better.