A few years ago, I was the proud pilot of what seemed to me to be the best deck in Extended: Red Deck Wins. I don’t think it was that unreasonable for me to think it was so amazing; I made the Top 8 of every event I played it in (except one, where I drastically changed the list the night before the tournament). I happily followed my friends to PTQs in different states, and was excited to take down at least a box worth of product every time.
Of course, I never qualified.
My then-friend and now-roommate Mike Patnik remarked (after knocking me out one Semifinals) that Red Deck Wins just wasn’t capable of winning a tournament. It’s taken me a long time to really understand what he meant, but I think that the lesson I learned is one that will serve me well for the rest of my Magical career. Mike’s point was that there would always be a few other decks in the Top 8 that would just outclass my Red deck. Twice I fell to a Blue/White Solitary Confinement deck; another time it was Blue/Black Mind’s Desire. My deck was amazing at going x-1 in the swiss rounds, but it was equally amazing at going x-1 in the elimination rounds.
I still look back at that PTQ season. It was a perfect example of finding a deck that was amazing at getting me most of the way there, but that was unable to really seal the deal. The reason that I bring this up now is that I think that the current Extended format is prone to the same sort of situations. Yes, there have been PTQ wins already with Red Deck Wins, so clearly what I’m saying isn’t one-hundred-percent airtight, but the lesson is still there. If you want to win a PTQ, you need to make sure that your deck choice isn’t going to let you down in the semifinals every time.
I have played some form of Red Deck Wins in every competitive scene I’ve taken part in. I played in my first tournaments ever with Jackal Pups and Fireblasts. I started PTQing with Cursed Scroll and Genju of the Spires. I went (nearly) infinite on Magic Online with Slith Firewalker and Arc-Slogger. And I probably should have made it to the semifinals of PT: LA with Frostling and Firebolt. So, when I showed up to my PTQ this past weekend, I obviously played Counterbalance.
I love Red decks more than most people I know, but I just can’t bring myself to play one this season. I put a ton of work in with my roommates playtesting Fledgling Dragons and Countryside Crushers before realizing that I was back in my old rut; if I wanted to win a PTQ I needed to choose a deck that would let me get there. This realization actually hurt me quite a bit. I am so used to playing some form of RDW that I didn’t want to learn how to play something else. But as time went on, I became more and more convinced that I just wouldn’t be able to expect to win if I chose RDW.
The problem that I see stopping me from figuring all this out is that it’s extremely hard to figure out exactly what it is about a deck that will hinder your ability to win against all comers. If it were as easy as pointing to one glaring weakness, then the problem could easily be solved. The piece that is simultaneously the easiest and hardest to explain is just what it felt like to be hit by a card (or combination of cards) that I just couldn’t do anything about.
Back in those days, you could be playing your best against a control opponent and have them way back on the ropes. You would have them down to just a turn or two left to live, and with only two or three lands available to use. And then they would put Solitary Confinement into play and it would be time to move on to the next game. Sure, you could sideboard some Flaring Pains, but those didn’t do much when the same opponent was also packing Scepter/Chant, Humility, and Counterspell.
The problem was that your opponent was doing something to you that you just couldn’t dream of doing to them. You could mess with their mana, you could try to kill them before they got off the ground, but when your plan was firing on all cylinders it just wasn’t impressive compared to just one of the many things they could do to you. And like I said, there are plenty of examples of this in modern-day Extended. Next-Level Blue can lock you up with Counterbalance and Sensei’s Divining Top, and use Vedalken Shackles plus Miren, the Moaning Well to make sure that what pressure you managed to sneak into play just fattens their life total. Heartbeat Desire can string along tons of Fog effects, while drawing multiple extra cards, and eventually unleash a Storm on you. And hey, Dredge might just kill you on the second turn if you don’t lead with Mogg Fanatic.
Now, the Red decks have gotten pretty impressive these days too. Tribal Flames and Gaea’s Might both represent huge chunks of life for just one card. The problem, though, is that these cards just represent the Red deck’s ability to more-quickly enact the same game-plan it’s been following for years. RDW of old and today’s Five-Color Zoo don’t really look much alike, but they’re trying to do the same thing to their opponents.
Another facet of the issue relates to the age-old wisdom that the more chances you have to interact with your opponent, the more chances you have to outplay them. This aspect doesn’t exactly line up with the previous one; for instance, I don’t think that many people would say that Dredge spends a lot of time interacting with the opponent. At the same time, Dredge is one of the decks that can do something ridiculous to its opponents.
A few weeks ago I thought that Dredge was a great deck to bring to a PTQ to win it. I convinced friends to move off their previous deck choices in order to play Dredge; I now think that that was a mistake. Sure, Dredge has plenty of power going for it, but I don’t think it has plenty of Magic going for it. Dredge offers you the raw speed to capitalize on opposing play errors that give you more time, but it doesn’t really have any way to capitalize on sloppy play that starts with Leyline and ends with Extirpates. Playing more and more Magic with your opponent goes both ways, though. The longer you spend playing a game, the bigger your window of opportunity to mess up.
I think that that was one of the biggest hurdles that I had to jump when I decided that some decks just weren’t capable of winning a PTQ. I spent the beginning of the season convinced that I didn’t want to learn how to play the “headache” that was the Counterbalance mirror. I thought that I would be able to get the results that I wanted out of the other matchups, but that everyone else would be better at the mirror match than I was.
This is flawed thinking. Even if the mirror is the hardest matchup the deck has (and it isn’t), it’s not so hard that it’s worth giving up on the deck. Yes, playing a match where both players might assemble the Counterbalance lock, and where creatures rarely wind up on the side that summoned them can be complex, but it isn’t so amazing so that you just can’t handle it. If you think that you’re one of the better players in the room, then how could everyone else stand to play the Counterbalance mirror if it’s that bad?
Those are the two biggest indicators (that I’ve been able to isolate) that I think relate to how good a given deck is at winning tournaments. I can believe that this idea doesn’t apply to all formats, since there will certainly be things like Block Constructed where people just really can’t do something that unfair to each other. However, I think that today’s Extended format exemplifies both of these traits; the good decks either play a lot of Magic or do something really spectacular, and the best decks do both.
In the end, this is why I recommend Counterbalance to anyone who really wants to win a PTQ. However, you need to make sure that you understand why you’re choosing the deck. You’re saying that you want to have the ability to do extremely powerful things to your opponents (and who doesn’t?), but you’re also saying that you want to have long, complicated games play out. If you’re one of the best players in the room, though, I think those are exactly the things you are looking for.
As always, if you have any questions, feel free to contact me in the forums, via email, or on AIM.
ben at mundy dot net
SlickPeebles on AIM