Alright, that’s a wrap.
The Extended qualifier season is over, and the coming of the New Year (really, New Millennium, but who’s counting?) it’s time to prepare for Planeshift’s appearance into the Standard environment. The cards that I’ve seen listed so far on MTG News are astonishing; it seems as if so far that all of the allied pairs are gaining some very useful spells. The first time I see a Shivan Wurm drop onto the table, I know it’s not going to be pretty. Trample has to be one of the most evil creature abilities in existence. 7/7 cheap trample in a slow environment makes it even more so.
I love it.
This past weekend, I participated in the free Pro Tour: Tokyo Qualifier in Normal, Illinois. Yes, that’s right – free. Barratt Moy gave many people a Christmas present by hosting a Qualifier that drew in multiple people from both the Chicago and St. Louis areas – and indeed, much to my surprise, from even further beyond. It was the largest qualifier field that I’d even participated in, and much to my glee, Binary 21 teammate Scott Forster reached the Top 4 with Gnome Rage, a deck that’s gone through months of testing. Though he thought about changing it after a near miss at the St. Louis PTQ, I was glad to see him stick it out and pilot the deck to a very impressive finish in a field of 122.
Perseverance – that’s what I’m talking about, G. Word to your mother.
Unfortunately, "Reasons to Be Beautiful" didn’t perform as well as I’d hoped. I’d gone into the tournament with only one deck being an auto-loss; that deck being 21, PandeBurst, or whatever you want to call it. 21’s a misnomer; it should be 42, or in some extreme cases, 60-freakin’-3. In St. Louis, I only saw two people playing it; in Normal, I saw at least nine different individuals doing so. Unfortunately, I matched up with two of them, and my auto-loss prognostication proved to be truth. I ended up 2-2-2, and you can figure out what those lone losses were to. PandeBurst is a little bit of brokenness, and yes, I’m still opposed to it morally, but that doesn’t mean a damn thing when I’m futilely throwing myself against it.
Take out those, and my deck did what it should; win. One of my draws was to a Breakfast deck, an archetype that was also out in full force. If we hadn’t been on extra turns (I had a Stormbind out and thus had the advantage), I can safely say that I likely would have won. Yes, I’m well aware that it means nothing aside from the fact that it assuages my ego, and "probably"s and "might have"s mean absolutely nothing when you check the win-loss-draw columns. C’est la vie.
Though the tourney was seven rounds of Swiss instead of the six I’m accustomed to – making Scott’s T4 even more impressive – I dropped at 2-2-2. I had been playing it out because, of course, I’m just "like that," but I had to scamper to the hotel bar in order to watch my beloved New Orleans Saints end the St. Louis Rams’ season, despite having fought through the season with numerous crippling injuries – including eight starters (five offensive, three defensive.) That event more than made up for a subpar day at the office.
Lose 8 life. Bury target Super Bowl Champion.
"Oh. My. God."
If you recall, the first part of this article dealt with the metagame, comparing it to the way that strategies evolve in sports; the metagame that exists in Magic has parallels elsewhere. The Saints were the quintessential rogue deck. "How can this team win?" people asked. Despite lacking the big names and being somewhat inconsistent and prone to play mistakes, there is a synergy that exists on the team that was evident during the season – where the sum became greater than the whole of the parts. The Saints have Top 8’d, my friends, and even if they don’t go further into the playoffs, what more can a fan ask for?
Players that were chuckled about or degraded on St. Louis radio for the last week rose to the occasion, and I thought more than once that it sounded just like Magic players deriding certain cards as "trash" until suddenly they become "tech." The conversion from one state to another usually is only the result of one thing: Someone succeeds with it. Seems simple, doesn’t it?
Take for example the latest fad in Extended: Full English Breakfast. I adore this deck; when I saw it, I immediately wanted to play it myself. Volrath’s Shapeshifter? What? How many people had looked at the card and, without giving it a second glance, relegated it to the trade binder? When Paul Barclay published his deck, however, suddenly we were all able to see more clearly how it could be used – to take the trash and make it into something beautiful. (But not a Reason to Be Beautiful.)
This deck was everywhere on Saturday; two Top 8’s for it. I also saw a number of people who picked it up and thought they could play it immediately. They were wrong, they were dead wrong, for the deck is very complex and difficult to play. I tested with it from the moment I saw it, and was amazed at the complexity of playing it. However, I gained quite an understanding of its mechanics, and was able to capitalize on that against one of my opponents. The trick is this: There are two zones which you need to manipulate – the graveyard, and your hand. Too many people playing it weren’t doing that. Unfortunately, with my two incredibly-quick-god-why-didn’t-I-put-Prices-in-the-sideboard-to-give-me-a-chance-against-PandeBurst losses, I had plenty of time to watch people running Breakfast in other matches. They focused on the graveyard instead of both, and didn’t grasp the synergetic effort required.
This lack of familiarity isn’t isolated to Breakfast; I’ve seen people do it before. One of the virtues of testing with Scott Forster is our testing methods. I perform better by playing all of the decks and understanding how they work – and thus, how to best beat them. He performs best by running his deck fifty, a hundred times, until he knows it like the back of his hand. That makes a very complementary testing team, and also gives me insight into the mechanics of decks when I play against them. While I consider that an anomaly, it works for me.
It seems that one of the misconceptions people have is that Net Decks are guaranteed wins; that someone can pick up Trix and take it to a Top 8. That’s completely false; regardless of anyone’s opinion of those decks, it takes skill and practice to understand the deck and run it properly. That’s perseverance – again. When I see people paying money to compete in tournaments with a deck they threw together the night before, I’m not sure what they’re thinking. If it’s worked, then kudos to you. If not, then really, take a moment and make the deck yours, even if you didn’t design it. When you’re running a popular deck, people know what to do against you (for example, against PandeBurst, I know what to do: roll over!). When you’re running a complex deck like Oath or Breakfast, then you’re doubling your disadvantage if you don’t take the time to truly grasp it.
During the qualifier, I found myself winning a game due to someone’s lack of familiarity with the cards he was playing with. The match was fairly even, and he Impulsed. He drew four cards, put them on the bottom, and then quickly shuffled his library.
I mentioned to him that he wasn’t supposed to shuffle, and he disputed it; he said he’d done it many times, and that the card said, "shuffle your library afterwards." Indeed, the card said that, but the card has had errata for quite awhile now, and because it drastically altered the status of his library, I called a judge and my opponent received the game loss.
Now, I’m not a fan of doing so; I’m somewhat casual during tournaments, although I’ve tightened up a bit, and I can differentiate between simple mistakes and deliberate attempts to cheat. I’m sure this was a mistake, but it was a potentially large one. It’s an excellent example, however, of the need to know what you’re playing with. Study your cards and know the rulings on them – because, as seen above, if you don’t it can cost you.
Before I launch into the real article instead of my general ramblings, I wanted to state my amazement at Adrian Sullivan. Many of you read his writings on The Dojo; I rarely miss an article. Witnessing his play against Scott in the Top 8 was amazing. He was an engaging opponent, and the math that he can do in his head can’t be described. After the tournament, he even treated us to a fascinating demonstration of High Tide with such speed and intricacy that it was like watching a machine – albeit a very animated and humorous machine – at work. Something he said stuck with me, and I wanted to share it. After casting his second or third Time Spiral, he commented (and I’m paraphrasing here), "People are complaining about brokenness? They don’t know what broken is."
I agree wholeheartedly with that. With the Force of Will mini-controversy, it seemed particularly relevant. Extended has no broken cards right now; extremely powerful ones? Yes. Extremely imbalanced ones? Yes. Broken? Nope. Necro isn’t broken. Pandemonium isn’t. Replenish isn’t. Duress isn’t. Survival isn’t. Consultation isn’t. And while Squee, Goblin Whore dominates Survival decks no matter what archetype people are running, he’s not broken. Neither is Force of Will.
Is there anything broken in Standard? No. Wizards has done a fantastic job of equalizing the field, and the colors. As I’ve stated before, there are decks out there that are clearly Tier One decks that are powerful. And, as I’ve also stated, there are answers.
On the 16th of December, I took part in a Standard Premiere Event. It wasn’t a major event, but it was the debut of "the God deck." I finished 2-2-1, 20th out of 43, and would have finished 3-1-1 if I hadn’t made a ridiculous play mistake. As it was, my opponents’ win percentage was 67%. This deck had people interested, and talking, and people were surprised when it kept winning. How did I develop it? What inspired it?
(Well, you know I’m going to tell you. I can’t help it if I have an overblown case of the Batman Syndrome and think that presenting questions at the end of paragraphs is going to maintain your interest.) (And I believe that presenting questions on the teaser quotes on the front page is the best way to suck people in, so we’re even — The Ferrett)
We’ll get to the deck itself in a bit. Because the all-important component about building a metagame deck – about stepping outside the box – is this: strategy.
Rogue decks have come in many forms over the years. The most successful ones, however, have come from strategizing. In Extended, there are multiple decktypes that are viable, and many of them have arisen as a response to the dominant decks. Over time, they become standard archetypes, but their origins aren’t exactly shrouded in secret; Three-Deuce didn’t originate in a laboratory one night as an accidentally perfect amalgamation of killer cards and combos, nor did Junk, nor did the underplayed Iron Phoenix. They were created because they could compete toe-to-toe with the best decks out there, to the point where they surprised people. Indeed, that surprise factor is often these decks’ best friend.
But they were built with strategy in mind, and even though they seem like a collection of good cards, these cards weren’t randomly chosen.
So what is strategy? How can you use it to build your deck? Darwin Kastle just wrote an excellent primer on deckbuilding; let me recap the key message points for you (as I realize that I’ve spent too much time in the corporate world, using that phrase):
- Raw power
- Card advantage
- The Metagame.
(If only I could put this in Powerpoint for the proper effect — The Ferrett)
Couldn’t have said it better myself (that probably won’t surprise anyone.) Strategy can be explored further, and it exists somewhat nebulously above and beyond deckbuilding. It’s a mental approach to Magic, existing both prior to building your deck and afterwards, as you tune it to face the environment.
(So, Mason, enough small talk: What IS strategy? Get on with it.)
Alright, already. Let’s get going.
This definition sounds somewhat militaristic, but bear with me:
To me, strategy is analysis and interpretation that allows you to predict the movements of the opposition, in order to have a better understanding of the components of both their forces and your own, the resources you need to utilize to neutralize the opposition and facilitate your own win condition, and the methodology by which you seek to win.
Quite a mouthful. And I had to read it about four times just to make sure it was grammatically correct. (YOU did? — The Ferrett) But look at it, and understand what it’s saying – after all, I’m here to help.
Really, it can be narrowed down to three points: Components, Resources, and Methodology.
Let’s apply this to Magic.
Components (Of Both The Opposition’s Forces And Your Own):
What makes up the decks in the environment? What cards are you going to use to build your own deck? What cards are even available?
Components are just that – components. Many of us, myself included, commit decklists to memory. I could build every top Net Deck without consulting a list, and I am certain I’m not unique in this regard. Due to my playtesting style, I even find myself memorizing popular variants on the deck, like the powerful mono-blue version of Trix that I’m surprised doesn’t see more play.
Ask yourself this when approaching an environment: "Do I know what I’m facing?" Take the top decks; Extended is most recently on most of our minds, so I’ll stick with it. When you face Trix, do you know what it has in it? What its common derivations are? That is where the value of tournament analyses often comes in. You can study the archetypes, the top decks, and learn the type of deck you’re going to match up against.
For example, you’re playing Extended, and your opponent lays a first-turn Tropical Island. What is he running? Oath, Turboland, Tradewind-Survival, possibly CounterSliver.
Your opponent lays a first-turn Mountain. What is he running? Sligh, Three-Deuce, Ponza (okay, so you and I both know there’s no real Ponza out there.) Just a Swamp? Hatred or Suicide Necro. If it’s an Underground Sea? Trix or CounterSliver.
These may seem like givens, but if you stop and think, the knowledge gained from merely a land drop can greatly affect your chances in the matchup. With Reasons to Be Beautiful, unless I can plop down a first-turn Lyrist, I typically lay my off-colored mana first (mountains) simply because it throws the opponent off balance for one turn. Is the advantage lasting? Not really. Does it disadvantage my second-turn Survival or Wall of Roots? Not at all. I’m confident that somewhere, they’ll be thinking red is my more important mana source, simply because I laid it first.
Knowing the components of a deck is a strategic advantage, since you can begin developing your response immediately. This is why rogue decks are my favorite – because often people DON’T know what’s going to happen, or you can capitalize on your opponent’s thought processes as they try and fit you into a certain archetype. If you see "Forest, Guildmage," will you be thinking "Okay, this guy’s going to have Survival of the Fittest in his Three-Deuce deck?" Chances are you won’t, and will be caught by surprise. When a person lays down a trio of Islands, you won’t be thinking that he’s going to be running the Trix combo.
At my perseverance qualifier, where I finished 13th after starting 0-2, I saw people completely surprised by my three maindeck Refreshing Rains and my lone Scragnoth. People were shocked at both recent qualifiers when Scott would play a maindeck Gnomes or Earthquake, because until then they had a completely formulated opinion about the matchup, the components of his deck, and their strategies against him. All of these "rogue" cards were used; Scragnoth single-handedly won me two games (guess what Morphling can’t block and blue can’t bounce?). No one expected me to have one, and throwing one in a Survival deck didn’t throw off my synergy in the least.
Call it rogue, call it tech, to me they’re one and the same; I’m not here to argue semantics. Knowing your opposition’s deck components is invaluable, and capitalizing on their lack of knowledge of your components is just as important. Keep in mind that if you are a smart player, you can use your knowledge to your advantage AND be prepared for tweaks or surprises, since 80% of the decks out there probably aren’t going to be rogue – and in the later rounds, the rogue cards that don’t work will often be filtered out further into the loser’s bracket.
Resources (Which You Utilize To Neutralize The Opposition And Facilitate Your Own Win Condition):
Resources are what you possess that can grant you a win condition and disrupt your opponent’s. Resources are what you utilize to neutralize the components of your opponent’s deck, and thus both identical and separate from the Components of your own.
Resources takes Components and moves a step beyond. Once you analyze the probable Components, you have to rely on the resources in your deck and sideboard – that is all you have. (Unless, of course, you have a Ring of Ma’Ruf somehow available to you.)
How can you maximize your resources? How can you utilize them most effectively? Often, you gain resource knowledge through experience and discussion. For example, with "Reasons to Be Beautiful," I found myself having a strong base of components – but there were numerous situations where I found myself unable to utilize the proper resources to combat certain strategies. There were components that I faced that I was unable to neutralize – my failings against PandeBurst are prime examples of this. I rolled over and lost, rather than being able to generate any sort of response or disruption.
When an opponent lays a Masticore, what do you have in your deck to deal with it? How are you going to neutralize it? This is why we tune. Is an Orangutan better, or a Viashino Heretic? Metagaming to me is having an answer to the majority of the problems you are going to face. If you face an Empyrial Armored Soltari Priest, what is your answer? Do you have one – or will you have one? Precisely BECAUSE most decks have limited answers to certain problems, knowing what your strategies are to solve them and create the win condition is a critical part of strategizing. Resources are the active and reactive state of Components.
However, beyond merely what exists within your deck, Resources is how you use them. When facing certain decks it is often important to realize that if you find your best resource and toss it out there, that it may not see the light of day. A fascinating match that I watched on Saturday was Scott’s Top 4 battle against Dan Bock’s Breakfast deck. The two of them both had the components for victory, but they had to utilize their resources in order to maximize the potential for their components to win. Dan set up multiple Walls of Roots, Survivaling them out in order to withstand and disrupt Scott’s massive burn potential. Scott laid a series of landmines that would be able to limit the effectiveness of Volrath’s Shapeshifter. Utilization of these resources was key in determining the final outcome, and being able to match or disrupt your opponent is what separates these first two concepts of strategy.
Methodology (By Which You Seek To Win):
So, Components are what you have. Resources are how you utilize them. So what is Methodology, if it’s not either of the two? As you can see by now, these are all interrelated; how could they not be? They’re all strategy, just different aspects of it. Methodology is the overall manner in which you utilize your Resources in order to create the win condition based on your ability to recognize the Components of a deck and react to it accordingly. (GRAMMAR CHECK! — The Ferrett)
Take a game where "Reasons" faced Counter-Sliver. He quickly seized an advantage, Duressing away my Survival. However, I drew another one – and then also drew two Hail Storms. My answer Components were Hail Storms, excellent nontargeted sweepers. When he laid Crystalline Sliver, I had the Resources in my deck to respond, and knew that it was my sole resource that could disrupt his win condition and facilitate my own.
My Methodology focused on being able to utilize those resources. How was I going to be able to make the utilization possible? That’s Methodology. Once you find how you’re going to be able to neutralize the opposition, it’s the way in which you go about doing so.
Against this deck, I decided to capitalize on trained responses, and to throw away cards and deplete his hand of counters. I presented resources that would help disrupt him, but not swing the game into my favor; some resolved, some did not. After a few turns, he had seven slivers in play, including a pair of Crystallines, an Acidic, and two Muscles, a Talon, and his production had been slowed by his need to counter my spells. I decided to cast the Survival, therefore, thinking that he was trained to counter it at all costs. True enough, he countered it – and then when he attacked with everything on his following turn, I double Hail-Stormed him and killed his entire creature base. For the record, this has happened thrice against CounterSliver decks now, who often forget that not all damage is targeted.
My methodology against blue is often to attack it, to make it react to inferior threats. If you sit there waiting for one or two specific resources to come up and answer your opponent, the other deck gains control and accumulates counterspells, and is more likely to have an answer to your true response when it finally arises. What it came down to was that Hail Storm was the only card that was going to turn the game around; it was the only resource available to me. My Methodology was such that I was willing to expend other resources in order to ensure that, when the time came, my Hail Storms resolved without a hitch.
Components: What your deck is made of.
Resources: Answers to your opponent’s deck.
Methodology: Ensuring that your resources win the game.
If a Masticore’s on the table, you’re probably going to be taking a beating. Should you start throwing chump blockers in front of it, or should you concentrate on developing your resources in order to take care of it in the long run and establish long-term control instead of an immediate solution? Depends on what’s in your deck. Methodology is reflective of the style of deck and type of responses you plan to generate.
We all use these philosophies, but rarely name them. Against Sligh, many times the best that you can do is to throw out creatures, even knowing they’re going to die, because Incinerate cast on an Elf is usually better than being cast on you. If you are playing a Red Burn deck, rather than playing against it, what is your methodology? To force the opponent to guess what you are holding; be aggressive or passive, but control the tempo of the game and not let your opponent know how close they are to painful fiery death. There’s nothing that Trix hates more than seeing a red mage sitting across from them with four or five mountains untapped and four cards in hand (except maybe a Consult that eats up 43 cards.) With Stompy green, it’s attack, attack, attack, throwing out creatures and Rancors with wild abandon. With Oath? It’s wait, react when necessary, and focus upon control in the long run. With Stasis, it’s taking advantage of your opponent being tapped and being sure to maintain enough mana to pay upkeep and to rid yourself of it if possible.
All of these are strategy. To me, articles on the Net serve the purpose of furthering it in many ways. A lot only comes from experience.
Thus, the dry analysis articles? I read all of them because they help me know the Components. I read tournament reports and rogue deck ideas to gain a idea of Resources I don’t know about and may want to include in my deck. Methodology? That’s where playtesting comes in, where you find out how your deck wins, when you read an article and go, "you know, I’m going about this all wrong. I should change my Components in order to have more Resources, which can change the Methodology of this deck into a much more effective one."
A lot of people playing Breakfast this weekend didn’t understand the Methodology behind the deck, or how to best utilize their resources, and it cost them. Now, don’t get me wrong – I really believe that there is no such thing as an easy deck to run. But there are some decks that require much more consideration and understanding than others in order to run them successfully.
I can directly trace my success in many ways over the last couple of years to my decision to intently study Net Decks and the Metagame, when I became determined to know as much about my opponent’s deck as possible before the game began and never be caught off guard. I’ve seen my Constructed rating jump from the low 1500s to its current 1692, and I know it’s not because I’m gifted with some extraordinary amount of skill – it’s because I’ve studied, learned, tested, and strategized. One of these days I’ll crack the 1700 barrier, and I’ll be ecstatic. Yes, I play for fun – but I WANT to win.
My deck Composition has improved; no longer will I consider Gaea’s Touch to be the be-all end-all of deck acceleration. My Resource utilization has improved; I have more answers, more consistent answers, and more disruption in my decks. And my Methodology has improved greatly, as I’ve learned the weaknesses of decks and how to ensure my resources generate the win condition I desire.
Building God Deck 2000 will be part three of this article, in which I’ll take these principles and apply them to how I built my latest Standard deck, which is consistently performing well in testing and is hopefully the deck I’m going to pilot through the Standard season. We know the Components of the top decks out there – now it’s time to develop Resources and establish a Methodology against them.
Magic’s a game of luck in many ways, but having the proper strategic mindset can supersede that. When Planeshift comes out, I’m already aware there will probably have to be changes; deckbuilding and metagaming are never complete processes. They evolve, just as the environment does, just as the top decks do.
Just as we, as players, must do.