Peace of Mind: Elegance

Back when I was a regular on the tournament scene, you’d see people show up with decks like that one that they peeled off a Pro Tour deck listing, and yet didn’t put in the requisite test drives. Believe it or not, no deck really drives itself, no matter how good the engine is. It may seem like it, but it just can’t, and people who say it does are really underestimating player ability as a deciding factor in deck creation and performance.

“Ok, take a point of manaburn.”

“What’s that?”

“You didn’t spend all your mana. You lose life. Manaburn.”

“You never told me that.”


No, I’m not talking about That PT Matchup, though I will in a bit. Yes, as that conversation alludes, there are still things that I’ve forgotten to teach my better half, apparently. I was sure I’d finally covered all the bases. There are some items, however, that people take for granted. You know how it goes – you see something, but it doesn’t quite click. A little alarm might go off, but your mental guards aren’t always ex-Navy SEALs trained to a hyper state of alertness. If they’re like mine, a lot of times they’re Homer.

Yeah, that Homer.


That’s how I feel about Life from the Loam. I looked at it, and said, “Oh, Green land restoration card. Neat, makes sense, that way dredge doesn’t simply screw ’em. Shrug.” Then, I ate another donut.

Well, I was a big fan of Life from the Loam once I saw it put to work in Bennie Smith deck, which I’ve raved about elsewhere and on the forums as my favorite current Standard deck to play with. However, Kenji Tsumura Loam + Gifts + Cycling lands is just a beautiful engine. It’s beautiful because it’s simple, and self-sustaining. It’s, oh, what’s the word I’m looking for.

It’s elegant.

*Shiver* Oooh, say it again.


Dictionary.com, which I have prominently bookmarked – yes, I’m a word geek – describes elegance for us.

Refinement, grace, and beauty in movement, appearance, or manners.

Scientific exactness and precision.

Extended is elegance.

I forgot how exciting Extended was. Sure, it’s prone to brokenness, but any format is, to be honest. I’ve seen Extended get a bad rap at times, but to me, it was the big leagues. From my perspective, as someone who never owned powerful Type I cards (Vintage? Legacy? What is it again? Screw it, it’s Type I.) Playing Block format is like driving your dad’s Volvo. Yeah, you can get there, and you can have a nice, solid deck, but there’s always that thought that you could be driving that, or you could be driving that.

Standard? It’s an upgrade, sure, it might even have some well-advertised touring package and give you a few thrills on the acceleration ramp, but it still feels like you’re settling for something slightly less than what you’d really like. I don’t want Hinder, I want Counterspell. I don’t want Plague Boiler, I want Pernicious Deed. I don’t want your Gifts Ungiven, I want Fact or Fict…wait a second, what am I saying, I can have both! Strike that from the record, pretend I never said it. Face it, Blue is broken, always is, and always will be, and if it isn’t Blue bending you over, it’s an artifact, and if it isn’t either of those, then it’s probably a Blue card or engine that has its claws around the spine of this other-colored card, propping it up and laughing as Othercard takes the heat. I mean, seriously, just take the Magic color chart, and scribble “brokenness” under Blue. It works.

That’s why we love Blue, though. Really, I think we have a love-hate relationship with it. You know that hockey player on your team who’s a bit of an ass, who seems to take a lot of penalties but keeps dishing it out? Throws his stick and body around a bit liberally, probably does a few illegal things when you aren’t looking? When he’s on your team, you overlook that. You smile and nod, or cheer him on, and say, “Yeah! Take that!”

When he’s on the opposing team, though, you sit, and you glare, and you glower, and you fume, and you grumble, and you bitch to yourself about how you wish the ref would call a goddamn penalty.

Yeah, that’s Blue.

If you think I’m lying, ask Chris McDaniel’s opponents at PTLA. It’s power. Seriously, I’m new to the format, years out of Magic, and just looking at it, it radiates self-assurance and dares me to try and play up to its potential.

I could be driving that. Yeah, I’ll keep using that analogy in this article. Lucky you. See, part of my mission is to get your head screwed on straight. So, take these words of advice and do with them what you will. There’s a winning mindset that goes along with natural talent, and people don’t always spend time they should thinking about how they approach the game. If you don’t like the comparison, I’ll give you another one in a minute that involves baseball, but I gotta work up to it.

Back when I was a regular on the tournament scene, you’d see people show up with decks like that one that they peeled off a Pro Tour deck listing, and yet didn’t put in the requisite test drives. Believe it or not, no deck really drives itself, no matter how good the engine is. It may seem like it, but it just can’t, and people who say it does are really underestimating player ability as a deciding factor in deck creation and performance.

These people would pull up to the starting line, rev their engine, have a smirky grin on their face because they think they’re the one to beat – and then they’d realize they didn’t know how to drive a stick. You’d see those same people walking around morosely 3 rounds later when they’re hoping for a side draft to start, wondering why they blew so much money on something that was just going to leave its transmission laying in the road. Well, that’s because you put it there, son.

PTLA has come and gone. The qualifiers are coming up soon. I mean, like, now. I seriously didn’t realize they’d be starting so quickly; for some reason, in my memory, there was a bit more lead time, but I see on the schedule that hi, some of them are actually *past*. Fancy that. Washington’s are on Nov 19th and Dec 17th, meaning I have no real chance for the first, but maybe, maybe, if I can get in enough testing or work, consider the pre-Xmas one. We’ll see.

Back to my point, because I hate wasting metaphors: If you want to go to Honolulu, practice. Practice, practice, practice. PTLA has shown us a lot of sharp decks. The Ravnica dual lands have already altered gameplay – the phrase “nineteen or seventeen” comes to mind. Darkblast and Life from the Loam and Lightning Helix have already snuck into decklists, and I’m sure more cards will filter into Extended as people learn new synergies and adapt to the environment as presented.

You have to practice, though, and dedicate yourself to learning a deck. Don’t just slide in behind the wheel of Madness’Tog and think all you have to do is push on the pedal and go. It won’t drive the same as Dredgeatog. I don’t care if they both use Psychatog. They aren’t the same.

I’ve said before that I used to suffer the problem of too many ideas, too many decks. I wanted to play them all! I enjoy that about Magic. I like the variety. I do that in a lot of games – I want to experience things from different perspectives. I want to see the game from other points of view, play it in different ways. Whether it’s a console game, online game, board game, whatever – I want to do it all, just because I Like Variety.

Well, variety isn’t necessarily what’s good for you if you want to be on the Pro Tour. Yes, some people *can* do it. I’m talking about the everyday player here. If you’re a Tsuyoshi Fujita, then all power to you, and I wish you the best, and envy your ability to develop and tune quickly. I’m not, though.

(By the way, you know you’re popular or talented when your name becomes more than your name. I want a Kleenex. Xerox these for me. Ahem. “A Tsuyoshi Fujita” indeed.)

Test your deck. Test it against the top decks. Then, test it once again versus those same decks. Realize the top win condition of each deck, and ask yourself these questions:

1. Can I stop or neutralize the win condition?

2. If I cannot, can I outrace it?

If you can’t do both, you’re in bad shape, because you’re setting yourself up for losses against decks you’re guaranteed to see in droves.

Maybe you’ll get lucky. We’ve all had that tournament where like, you manage to somehow miss seeing the 15 decks of X archetype. But never count on luck – no, instead you do your best to make luck a non-factor.

That means Be Prepared.

That’s in essence what I’m doing with Barrett right now. I spent the last week building multiple Standard decks from all across the metagame. I printed out a lot of proxy slips, and about sprained my wrist cutting them out. It took hours. Seriously. Just cutting paper. That’s nuts, but (and I capitalized it, so you know I mean it, as much as you can “mean” a conjunction), I also have 15 decks, mostly of cards I don’t have, available to play and teach with. Honestly, just going through the Midgame vs. Aggro-Control matchup five times a week wasn’t that exciting. It’s time to grow, baby, it’s time to see the world!

It’s time to drive.

  • How does your deck beat Heartbeat-Brain Freeze?

  • How do you escape a Chant lock?

  • What do you do against a Psychatog backed up with counters? With Madness? With both?

Seriously. I remember in the old days, the question was “how do you beat Morphling?” Morphling was a beast. He was probably my favorite creature of all time (though I’ve loved others, Morphling was just… elegant. The way it appeared so unassumingly on the table and proceeded to shift and change to meet whatever threat appeared, the way your opponent squinted when it hit the table…ah, memories). He was also prevalent and in a lot of decks. Man, though, this Psychatog… he’s everywhere.

He’s the guy you have to be ready for and the experienced drivers piloting him.

Preparation lets you know what your deck will do against others. Not hypothetically what your deck will do. What it actually does. You can’t assume a win or loss until you do it enough times to know for sure. If you have a playtesting gauntlet, use it. In any given match, you won’t get enough of a read on decks to know for sure.

Let’s for a second ignore the seemingly egregious misplay in the semifinal match between Moreno and McDaniel – and, by the way, McDaniel’s seemed quite graceful considering the fact that there was like, oodles of money involved. I’m pretty sure that I’d be more vehement. McDaniel wins first 2, Moreno wins next 2. Best 2 out of 3, Moreno lost. 3 out of 5, ignoring the misplay, he won.

What if he hadn’t drawn the multiple Circular Logics? What if it was 4 out of 7? 5 out of 9? 23 out of 45? Seriously, I’ve played matches that many times, it isn’t fun, but it sure does help tune a deck. Play that matchup 15 times, and you have a lot better read on it than a 3- or 5-game match. In the short term, anyone can beat anyone, be it because of a good draw, a bad draw, an amazing draw, a stupid mistake, a brilliant insight, whatever. If you want to know how a deck works, however, you have to keep at it. Play, play, play. Thinking you’re going to win isn’t the same as knowing you are. As it is, you don’t quite know if Moreno’s showing against that deck is a complete fluke, or if it can consistently beat it. That’s something you need to know.

Random aside that goes here because I can’t find another place to put it:

So we went to a FNM draft the other night, which was run as single-elimination. I went 1-1, mostly because my deck lacked removal, and despite plowing over my first round opponent, got absolutely creamed against recursion-deck-of-fun in the second round. Recursion in Limited = some good.

This reminds me of this Sci Fi movie I saw one time...

Anyway, my second round opponent was a pleasant enough fellow with a very fun deck. Yeah, I wish I’d been driving that, but anyway. I had a Viashino Fangtail out once and at the end of his turn, because there was nothing else on his side I could have damaged, the logical play was for me to ping him for 1. However, I forgot – and I untapped, and realized this, and realized it and said “dammit.” Strangely, he was like “you woulda hit me for 1. Go ahead.”

I said, “No, I didn’t announce it, I just forgot, my bad.” Then, he insisted upon taking his point of damage. I was like, “Dude, no,” but I didn’t feel like arguing vehemently and after the third protest was like, fine, screw it. Amusingly, on the next turn, I made the same mistake, because I was still going “what the hell” inside my head. He did it again, “woulda hit me for 1,” and the same deal ensued.

Now, I’m sure he was trying to just be nice-fun-opponent-guy (because if it was some weird, obscure psych-out, it didn’t work, nor would it on like, anyone I know, and he seemed intelligent) but really, I thought that it simply shouldn’t have happened. I made a mistake – let me make the mistake and pay the penalty. No matter what it was for, or if it was eventually game turning (it wasn’t, but at that point, my deck was largely unknown to him), that mistake needed to stand. I’m willing to let things slide with people, like if they tap an extra land by accident because the sleeves stick a bit, or if they tap a guy while declaring attackers and then go “wait, no, I don’t send him.” I’m fine with the decision-making process until something is resolved. Yeah, that’s fine, untap him, but don’t go “I attack with these,” and let me start calling blockers, because at that point, the decision’s done, you know? When something has been decided – such as passing a turn, or forgetting to do something with one of my creatures, or my mana, or whatever, then you know, it’s my responsibility as a player to admit to that mistake and take responsibility for it, even if it is detrimental to me.

Read into that what you will regarding that aforementioned semifinal match. Because, yeah, it kinda relates. I’m all for being a cordial opponent, but I’m also all for being a responsible opponent.

Let’s go back to what I said before that editorial:

Thinking you’re going to win isn’t the same as knowing you are.

You can’t just show up and expect to win because you have Some Good Cards v1.0. You have to show up, and play your deck with elegance.

Don’t make it sputter or wheeze. Don’t stall it out because you don’t know how to work the clutch. Don’t run up your RPMs because you don’t know the shift points. Be smooth, son, be cool. Don’t get discouraged. Sometimes, you’ll play a deck four or five times before it feels comfortable. Sometimes, it won’t feel comfortable at all, ever. That’s when you play something else. I’ve never been a big beatdown player, because it’s just not natural for me. I’m not that aggressive. I can play it, but I’ll never excel at it, because it goes against my instincts, which are much more on the controlling side of things. Find a deck that suits your personality.

There’s a point at which the deck becomes an extension of you. That’s when you know you’re the one in control of it. I’ve had that a couple of times. My favorite deck (and most elegant) wasn’t my 15-minutesish God deck, believe it or not. It was (is, really) my Survival of the Fittest deck from awhile back. I actually don’t recall how much I wrote about it – I’ll check in a second, but I’m all stream-of-consciousness on you right now and I’m not interrupting – or at what point in my Magic career I played it, because well, it’s been a few years. My friend Mr. Forster played against it a lot, and it was one of the only decks that I really was in tune with enough to the exclusion of other decks. Every deck I had revolved around Survival. I played it in different incarnations, I tested what seemed like every possible interaction, and I had not just one deck, but two or three, that I knew back and forth. One – “Reasons to Be Beautiful” – was my favorite, but I had a few variations, all named for Hole songs. I mean, I knew that deck. I didn’t want to drive that, because I was driving this, son. I could play it in my sleep. I knew what cards to expect, what would come up, what to get, what to sideboard, you name it. I did well with it, too. That feeling of, for lack of a better phrase, deck mastery – it’s pivotal. It changes the way you play it. It’s faith, trust, and love all rolled up into one.

Man, and I thought people who said that about their cars were a bit loopy. AFK to call my shrink.

No, I don’t really have one. Thanks.

I kinda needed one when they banned Survival, though. Survival wasn’t broken, really. Squee was. I was pretty pissed.

(Ok, I took a break from my stream and found the article:

It’s quite the rant. Read at your own peril. I still want my Voodoo Imp. Did they ever make the Black Birds in a set I missed? I should look that up when I’m done.)

Remember when I promised you another comparison?

Take your average baseball stud. When they go up to the plate, their swing is largely habitual. One of the primary factors in hitting slumps for good hitters is when their mechanics are off; when a bad habit becomes introduced into their swing, such as dropping an elbow early or not balancing their weight properly as they follow through. They spend a lot of time, therefore, practicing their swings, trying to eliminate those hitches, correct their errors. People have different swings; some good hitters have absolutely hideous swings (Julio Franco cracks me up, but he’s 47 years old and hit .275 this year, amazingly enough), but for Mr. Franco – er, I mean them – it’s smooth. Some hitters, by the way, have incredibly elegant swings. Every sport has graceful moments. In baseball, it’s the swing, for me.

However, even when things are going perfectly with their swing, they’re making minute adjustments at the plate. Swinging early or late. Hit-and-run? Sacrifice fly? They require different adjustments.

That’s what a well-played deck is like.

Play it until you have your swing down, until it’s right where you want it to be, because if you have your foundation set, if you have the kinks worked out, then you’re in the perfect position to make adjustments for each situation. If you go up there hacking away, you’ll strike out. If you forego batting practice or examining the flaws in your swing, you’ll perform poorly. If your swing is messed up, and you try and make an adjustment, you’re adjusting from a flawed swing, which means, therefore, that the result is flawed.

Make Your Deck A Habit. Then adjust each match.

Got it? Make sense? Capice?

Good. Now, the point of all that was to reinforce one word.


Just be careful not to binge and PERG.

Be precise.

Be exact.

Be refined.

Be graceful.

Precision: Tap the right mana, announce cards correctly, don’t slop your way through phases.

Exact: Know your deck. Don’t guess what’s left, don’t wonder what its matchup is against Netdeck_03. Play it, know it, accurately measure it.

Refined: Practice. Work out the flaws. Make subtle changes to improve performance. Become better at playing.

Graceful: Don’t fight the deck, don’t force the deck. Control the outcome to the highest degree that you can, via card selection and play selection.

A well-played Extended deck is a thing of beauty. I’m not a big fan of combo decks, but when you see one played well? It’s art, son, it’s art. Even as it’s walking away from your broken body, it’s beautiful.

If you lose, let it be because the other person played well. Let it be because they were as, or more, precise as you. Mistakes happen, and always will, but don’t lose because you really aren’t qualified to run your deck. Don’t lose because you play your deck like a teenage boy fumbling towards second base on a first date.

(No offense to the teenage boys who read this and may have, at some point, fumbled towards second base on a first date. Trust me, we’ve all been there. It’s ok. One day you’ll laugh. On second thought, I’m not comfortable with this entire metaphor. What the hell? Changing gears.)

You want to drive that? Cool, go for it. I wish you the best. One last time, though: Don’t take it for granted. The deck won’t drive you. You have to drive it. All it can do is respond. If you take things for granted, no matter how powerful it feels, you’ll go nowhere.