Now the new Type 2 season is underway, and results from States are flooding in with a promise to define the elusive metagame. Yippee. To me,”metagame” can just as easily be translated into”now we have decks to copy on the web so we don’t have to struggle through developing our own.” Everybody break out your Nether Spirits.
At the end of October, I threw a whole lot of decks at you to start the new season. They were all things I had made online using Magic Encyclopedia. I played each deck a few times, maybe tinkered with it a bit, but I would mostly consider the decklists from those ten days to be thumbnail sketches. I reiterated throughout the articles that playtesting would really bear out which were contenders and which were just silly.
Playtesting would also, I well knew, change the decklists dramatically (although much to my surprise, I received half a dozen emails from people saying they won local Type 2 tourneys with some of them. Zoinks!).
Just to give you an example of how decks can change through playtesting, I have decided to track one of those thirty decks and its evolution into a legitimate, polished decklist. At the end of the article, you will have a deck that – sigh – you can copy and take to a tournament that should be able to compete with most other Tier 1 and 2 decks. More importantly to me, you will see the kind of decisions that get made during playtesting and how decks evolve.
My first task in all of this was to pick a deck from the thirty I had listed. I would like to say I carefully balanced which decks I thought had the most potential, were fun to play, and differed the most from the current environment. But in all honesty, I just picked my Wood 2K deck – Deck #30 – because it’s my personal favorite. I have a lot of history with the original Wood deck, and I wanted to see what would happen now that so many of the core cards from the deck had rotated out of the Type 2 environment.
To refresh your memory, here is the original deck I listed…
WOOD 2K v1.0
Read my comments here to see what I said about playing the deck and some of the card choices.
One of things I like about starting with this deck is that it is about as simple as they come. There are four copies of every spell in the deck, and it is mono-colored. It is also a control deck in a color other than blue, so there are a lot of different ways the deck can go to support its strategy. Again, these are all hindsight observations; I just chose Wood because I like it.
STAGE 1 OF PLAYTESTING: FINDING THE BIG HOLES
The first thing I did was play a lot of games online against a lot of different opponents. I played against some really bad players with some truly awful decks and some darned spiffy players with some very tuned decks. Most people were playtesting their own decks for States, so there was a lot of diversity in my opponent’s decks. The one color I didn’t play against much was black, which I consider to be dumb luck. The disadvantage of playing online is that you don’t really have any control over the”gauntlet” you playtest against.
My only rule during this initial stage was: Resist the temptation to change the decklist. I wanted to test things like reliability, which just doesn’t work when the deck is morphing all over the place. Besides, just because Hurricane isn’t any good versus red decks doesn’t mean that the spell is worth obliterating. My goal was to see how spells like Hurricane stood up in a variety of situations and to observe how often it helped me win games.
I played the deck, again and again, until I was sick of it.
Keep in mind here that the original decklist I provided had gone through the initial revisions I make to conceptual decks in the first few games of playtesting. Usually in the first game or two I realize some really obvious card I should have included but didn’t, or some other card that clearly does not fit. These are completely acceptable changes to make. It is after these initial changes that it’s time to do some of the reliability testing.
I did not systematically take notes on the deck’s performance, but this is never a bad idea. I feel like I understand deck design pretty well, and can pretty quickly discern a deck’s flaws or strengths. Even still, it would be fun to gather a lot of quantitative data to help support (or not) by intuitive observations about the deck. Maybe next time. I love data.
After something like a dozen games, I felt like I understood Wood 2K’s strengths and weaknesses. Indeed, frankly I was sooooo tired of dealing with the weaknesses. I’ll focus on these shortcomings in my observations, but embedded in my explanations is the good stuff. It is important when changing a deck to address the weaknesses WITHOUT sacrificing what the deck can already do well. You know this about deck revisions, but it is worth repeating.
Here are my observations:
– The deck won a lot, but it barely won. What was even more distressing is that it barely won against the bad decks just as often as it barely won against the good decks. I considered this to be reliability of the wrong kind. The core issue seemed to be that a lot of the big spells were game-changers, but it took me awhile to draw them. I stalled. A lot.
Hm. The old Wood deck never stalled.
– The deck created way more mana than it needed. This meant probably either upping the casting cost of the spells or sacrificing some mana production for some other kinds of spells.
Hm. The old Wood did lots of cool big stuff with its mana.
– The deck lacked an offensive punch. You’ll recall I added Hurricane for just this reason but I still only really had eight beatdown creatures, Hurricane, and a lot of utility. The creatures were golden: They just didn’t come up enough. Hurricane was situational – sometimes my best friend and others (namely, when I was behind on life or against Counterspell) a legitimate liability.
Hm. The old Wood had lots of punch.
– The deck had a lot of control, but it never quite TOOK control. I would dazzle my opponents with mana, Tangle Wire lock them for three or four turns, Twister and Mold away their enchantments… their artifacts… their land. Especially their land. With Dust Bowl, the deck became an LD machine. The problem was, because of a lack of offensive punch, I squandered my Wires and LD and let my opponent recover while I did absolutely nothing. Even worse, I did nothing with thirteen mana available. I often got dangerously close to losing against anything that resembled beatdown. I would eventually stabilize, but it was always scary.
Hm. The old Wood always had just enough control to cause opponents to
– The deck had no card-drawing. This meant once I had established a large mana base that I was then stuck in a topdecking mode. Drawing a Forest with fourteen of them already on the table is mighty frustrating. Frankly, so is drawing a Creeping Mold. The Skyshroud Claims helped cull some of the land from the deck, but waiting for a topdeck is still not a way to win a tournament.
Hm. The old Wood had Yavimaya Elder.
STAGE 2 OF PLAYTESTING: THE TINKERING
So back to the drawing board I went. I tried various cards that I thought would give the deck more punch, usually in substitution for either mana or control cards. Then I played more games in what I would consider my”Phase 2″ of playtesting. Unlike the previous series of games, I would play a game, change the deck, play a game, change the deck… and so on. I usually never changed more than four cards at a time. I was looking for a balance between offense and control. To wit, here are some of the cards that passed through my playtesting and were eventually rejected:
Avatar of Might, Chimeric Idol, Horn of Plenty, Hunted Wumpus, Jayemdae Tome, Monkey Cage, Rath’s Edge, Rod of Ruin, Rushwood Elemental, Snake Basket, Squallmonger, Tangle, Thresher Beast, Trained Armadon, Tsabo’s Web and Waiting in the Weeds.
If it sounds like I played a lot of games, you are right. That is what playtesting is all about.
You can see my thinking. I tried various other green fatties, finally deciding each was too expensive and too vulnerable to black removal, bounce and counters. I tried card-drawing of various kinds, but they all either had bad synergy with the other cards or were just too slow. There are some other interesting innovations I pursued, but none significantly helped the deck in my opinion.
In the end, I made the following changes:
This is probably one of the most subtle changes I made, but also one of the most powerful. Land Grant basically pulls a Forest from the deck, helping in the topdecking mode, and can be played for”free” sometimes. These are both good things. The problem is that I don’t really want to translate my cards for land. In fact, I want to help translate my cards into big, nasty spells. Chromatic Sphere has helped me do so, and so far is the only card-drawing I have found I need.
Let me be clear: Without the cantrip, Chromatic Sphere is strictly worse than Lotus Petal, which itself is only useful in combo decks. With the cantrip thrown in, the card suddenly becomes free card-drawing later in the same as long as you have something to cast (or are willing to take mana burn). Moreover, it gives the deck more first-turn drops and can be pretty helpful with a Tangle Wire on the table. All good things. It sounds weird to have Chromatic Sphere in a mono-colored deck (or even in a deck), but I found – unlike Land Grant – it’s almost like playing with a 56-card deck.”Almost” because you need to make the initial one-mana investment to cast it and then you must use mana to activate it (although you can use this mana for other spells).
The real question was whether adding the Sphere meant that I got mana-screwed with only twenty land in the deck. I watched this very carefully and I did not. More importantly, later in the game I could give myself an extra draw from the deck.
Recall that one of the problems was that I got mana-flooded. Another phenomenon I ran into was that I often held my breath until I reached four mana, and then the deck exploded. Here is where I ran into a paradigm shift of sorts: It suddenly occurred to me that any deck running Harrow culled just as much land as I did using Skyshroud Claim. Especially since I didn’t have Yavimaya Elder anymore, the Claim just didn’t make sense here. For one less mana I could thin my library of two lands, and the drawback would be having slightly less overall mana. Good. I didn’t need all that mana anyway.
Waiting until three mana turned out to be infinitely less stressful than waiting until four. I also found that I suddenly had the appropriate amount of mana on the table for what was in my hand.
Don’t get me wrong, I loved the two Dust Bowls. But I also realized it was just silly not to have Rishadan Port in the deck. The original Wood didn’t use it because it was trying to cast Rushwood Elemental, but I currently don’t have that problem. Besides, with so many multicolor decks the Port suddenly became (shudder) an even more valuable card than before. Six colorless mana sources made me a little nervous, so I dropped one Bowl. My rationale at the time was that with Harrow instead of Skyshroud Claim, I was now putting less land on the table to use with the Bowl. I did not want to sac enough lands to make my other spells like Desert Twister impossible to cast.
2x Jade Leech
My answer to adding offense. I dropped one Twister and one Mold to make room for these guys. Both spells are duplicative and it didn’t seem to hurt my overall control to have six all-purpose utility spells instead of eight.
To be honest, I don’t like Jade Leech. Anything that makes almost ALL of
my spells more expensive really gives me a headache. Suddenly there are
two tempo and mana scenarios for the deck: one in which the Leech is on
the table and one in which it is not. Still, I figured four mana for a 5/5 was decent, even if it could be killed easily by black and countered easily by blue. Thus, it was the best of many bad choices, and not one for which I was particularly happy. Nagging at the back of my mind was whether two spells would really make that much difference in offense, and that there had to be a better way to use my explosive mana than making my own spells more expensive.
I initially decided that two copies of Hurricane was enough to keep it useful when it was useful and absent when it wasn’t. Then I tried Predator, Flagship, which made excellent use of my multitude of mana and gave the deck added creature control. The problem was that with the Flagship, I suddenly liked Hurricane more. The compromise was to keep three copies of Hurricane and insert one Flagship. The Flagship also made up for the missing Twister, which was obviously the deck’s previous only way to deal with huge creature threats.
I should say that I have only recently added single copies of spells into decks without Tutors. I don’t why or when it started happening. I guess there are enough expensive spells that I figure would be fun to play if they showed up, but would weigh the deck down if multiples existed. I use the new dragon legends a lot in this way. There is nothing so important as to warrant axing the Flagship from the deck, since sometimes it will win me the game, but I also don’t want to see it until the game has progressed in a way that I can use it. Probably a dumb point, but it strikes me as a deckbuilding quirk that I currently enjoy.
So, the next generation of the deck looked like this…
WOOD 2K v1.6
I played a few games with this deck and it won much more convincingly. The Spheres especially helped, letting me topdeck two Blastoderms, or a Blastoderm and a Twister, in one turn. It still struggled a little against faster decks, but the Leech helped there too and made the sacrifice in control well worth it.
A few things still nagged at me. The deck had taken a far turn away from the classic (Okay – I use the term”classic” loosely here) Wood form, and the focus was less on generating obscene amounts of mana and more about general green control. I wondered whether I was treating the deck as a regular control deck rather than a Forest-thinner, and if I would have made different choices if I had started with the idea of making a green control deck from the beginning.
The deck also still stalled more often than I liked. The original Wood almost never stalled. Every draw was a Power Draw. It was one of the things that made the deck so much fun. I pored over the choices in both artifacts and green for something that would approximate an offensive threat. A real Power Draw. I missed Deranged Hermit. I missed Plow Under. I did not miss Morphling, Masticore and Replenish, though, so I got over my frustration quickly.
THE EPIPHANY: WHEN PLAYTESTING LEADS TO INNOVATION
It eventually hit me.
Why was I limiting myself to green and artifacts? If I had shown anything in my thirty decks, it was that multicolor decks are more possible in Standard now than any time in recent memory. I blinked a couple of times, rubbed my eyes, and realized I already had Chromatic Sphere and Harrow in the deck to support a splash of another color. Wow. I couldn’t believe something so obvious had managed to elude me.
Now the only question was, what spell I could splash that would make a big enough difference?
Here is where I take a bit of a detour. Something had happened during my playtesting games that I didn’t take much note of at first. In fact, I would hardly even call it an observation. But I suddenly remembered that in many, many games, during my opponent’s turn I spent my time despairingly counting the amount of mana I could produce. This usually occurred during a time in which I had”stalled” and any card I drew was ridiculously easy to cast. The number was often the same… eleven, twelve, thirteen, twelve, ten, twelve.
What’s a card worthy of twelve mana that was a game-breaker? The card
would have to be good against beatdown and not sacrifice too much in the
control department. Hmm. Hmmmmmmmm…..
Of course, by now you know what card I am talking about. I am talking about Urza’s Rage.
I played a few more games to confirm my suspicion and decided that twelve mana was indeed possible to achieve, if my opponent wasn’t playing spells like Wrath of God and Armageddon. Even when I didn’t reach twelve mana, the difference that three damage or creature control would have made was huge.
The only remaining question was what to take out. I still didn’t like Jade Leech in the deck, so that gave me two slots. I dropped a Hurricane, getting the number to what I always thought it should be. Finally, I decided grudgingly that Tangle Wire was the spell least useful throughout the entire course of the game and dropped the number to three.
I also, obviously, adjusted the mana base to support four red spells. Karplusan Forest was a no-brainer, since the ping-effect did very little to change my life by more than a couple of points throughout the course of the game. I needed Mountains, and kept the Mountains-to-Harrow ratio at 1:1 so that when I Harrowed I could usually search for one Forest and one Mountain. I playtested with Shivan Oasis, but the coming-into-play-tapped effect actually had an enormous effect on the tempo of the deck, since the deck was often waiting to get to four, five or six mana before it could get started… and waiting an extra turn to do so was terrible. The colorless sources of mana got dropped down to one.
I did not try – nor do I want to try – changing the Llanowar Elves into either Quirion Elves or Birds of Paradise. First, Quirion Elves are not a first-turn drop, and thus mess with the mana curve of the deck too much. Besides, with only four red spells in the deck the extra mana is sacrificing speed too much for stability.
The Birds are a little harder call. They are a first-turn drop, but they lack two vital bonuses of Llanowar Elves. First, they have no offensive capability which has been one of my particular bugaboos during the entire development of this deck. Second, they have no synergy at all with Hurricane. I do not like having cards that conflict with one another… it’s one of those principles I adhere to strictly and stubbornly. I like SYNERGY. In my mind, every time I killed my own Birds with a Hurricane would piss me off. Hurricane is to kill OTHER player’s Birds, not mine. I could turn around and drop the ‘Canes, but I love that they kill other people’s Birds. You see the dilemma.
Eventually, of course, the Wood name needed to go. This deck is so completely different, with a much more predictable mana curve. I kept Wood in the name to give a nod to its roots, but I also needed to acknowledge the card that turned it from cool deck to a really good deck.
After some slight tinkering, here is the deck I have settled upon. Right now, after several games, I am very happy with this deck. For those of you waiting for the decklist to copy, here you go (you uninspired bastards)…
This deck DOMINATES poorly-made decks and competes well with State champion decks. I find it makes opponents want to play one of their other decks against it to see what happens. Then another. I can almost see their brains working to figure out the decklist and to decide what, exactly, is so successful. These are good signs, in my opinion. They speak of a polished deck rather than a thumbnail sketch.
It is also an expensive deck to put together, and I apologize for that. Even when I did own cards, I usually did not figure cost into decks I made because I had a large enough trade collection and a network of friends to help me out with cards I lacked. Seventeen rares isn’t extreme for a tournament deck, but I do recognize it is a bummer. If you are playing for fun, by all means substitute cards for those you don’t own.
A few notes about each”block” in the decklist above just so I cover all
of the cards:
Creatures (16): I feel like I have said enough about Llanowar Elves. Vine Trellis is very important as both early defense against beatdown like Rebels and as mana production. There are a lot of quality 3/3s that an opponent can play these days, so a four-toughness defender is a terrific asset. Blastoderm is currently, in my opinion, the best creature in the current environment. There are quite a few answers to Blastoderm these days, but the fact that every deck NEEDS an answer to Blastoderm speaks to its importance.
Kavu Chameleon is one of those creatures everyone will be playing later but might overlook now. First, it is an uncounterable fattie which hasn’t been seen since Scragnoth (and he’s fatter than Scraggie). Combined with Urza’s Rage, this means that eight of the deck’s twelve primary threats can’t be countered. Ask any blue mage how this makes him or her feel. Secondly, Kavu Chameleon is effectively immune to black removal and spells like Exile. Thus, both fatties in the deck are largely untargetable. Ask any black mage how this makes him or her feel. Finally, Kavu Chameleon can do fun things like pump itself up with Crusade. This might not make white mages cringe, but I just think it’s funny.
Non-creature spells (24): I have already justified Chromatic Sphere, Harrow, Urza’s Rage, Hurricane and Predator, Flagship. Hopefully you understand the logic of all those spells being included. Creeping Mold and Desert Twister, as I said before, are meant as pure utility. They are answers to spells like Parallax Wave, Rising Waters, Chimeric Idol, Armadillo Cloak, Millstone, etc. Desert Twister is especially valuable because it can get rid of things like dragons, djinns, and Skizziks. Almost as importantly, both spells can act as land-destruction to either deny an opponent a color or to take advantage of mana-screw.
Tangle Wire is one of those really unfair spells. It’s cheap, it helps beatdown decks, and it helps control decks. That’s just wrong, in my opinion. But since Wizards made it, I am not opposed to using the blamed thing. It would be very easy to justify four copies, and was the last spell to succumb to Urza’s Rage. Tangle Wire and land destruction are a frustrating combination, especially with something like a Blastoderm on the table. Ask any red mage… nah, don’t ask them anything. You’re probably tired of asking people things, and red mages are mean.
Land (20): Does twenty land seem like too few for a deck with Urza’s Rage and Desert Twister? On face value, I would agree. But the deck also has eight very cheap creatures that produce mana as well as mana”boosters” like Harrow. Unlike, say, Dark Ritual, all of these cards give prolonged, sustained increases in mana production. The deck also has Chromatic Sphere, whose added card-drawing sifts through the deck to find land easily. I haven’t messed around with the number of colorless sources that could survive in this deck, so it is not inconceivable that a second Bowl, Rath’s Edge, or some Ports will find their way into the decklist.
SIDEBOARD FOR RAGE-WOOD
I clearly won’t be taking this to a tournament anytime soon because, well, I don’t own any cards. (Don’t forget, folks, Jay only plays online – The Ferrett) This also means I have the luxury of not considering a sideboard. I will speculate, though, about what might go into a sideboard were I to make one. Keep in mind I am back to”first draft” mode when considering a sideboard for Rage-Wood, so take all of this with the same grain of salt you took with my ten days of articles:
Groundskeeper is clearly not great against red land-destruction because it is so fragile to Shock and other red removal. I am not including him here because of Ponza, however. The deck should already be highly resistant to traditional forms of spot land-destruction. Rage-Wood is not a deck that likes Armageddon, however. And make no mistake: Many, many decks these days use Armageddon. Because the deck dislikes ‘Geddon more than any other spell, it is worth considering four sideboard slots to combat it. Thankfully, few decks use both Shock and Armageddon.
Scorching Lava is current answer-de-jour for Nether Spirit. It can also aid in frustrating Lin Sivvi a good deal of the time. Finding two red mana is fairly easy, but is still something to give you nervous laughter each time you draw. Obviously, Scorching Lava should always be sideboarded in for Urza’s Rage – and nothing else. The mana base exists for a reason. With both Rage and Lava in the deck, finding mana for your eight red spells will be frustrating.
Tranquility is there because many decks these days use multiple enchantments. I found myself in deckbuilding creating decks that would absolutely die to Tranquility because I knew no one used it. To me, this suggests that Tranquility is an excellent sideboard option, though I may be falling victim to my own mental metagame here.
Woodripper was my favorite sideboard card for the original Wood. Artifacts clearly aren’t as imposing nor dangerous now that Urza’s block has rotated out. But against decks without significant counters and that rely on things like Meekstone, Diamonds and Chimeric Idol, Woodripper is an awfully good fattie. Even still, Woodripper is probably the most suspect sideboard choice here.
As with any first drafts, there are probably very good cards I have overlooked. For instance, maybe Tranquil Grove is better than Tranquility. Maybe Cursed Totem is really important in some matchups and worth neutering your mana guys. Tangle might be great against some beatdown decks and an answer to an opposing Blastoderm. Heck, spells like Crooked Scales might be friggin’ fantastic. I just don’t know. That’s what playtesting is for, and it’s why I heap so many caveats into this section.
Thus Rage-Wood is born, coming to an online game near you. I think this deck is a legitimate, polished choice in the new Type 2. More importantly, I think this article a) gives a glimpse into how an initial idea can get transformed through playtesting and b) shows what revising a deck generally entails. Like genetic evolution, the evolution of a deck during playtesting is neither predictable nor formulaic. But after many, many games and careful observation, I am convinced that an overwhelming number of decks can survive in the current Standard environment.
I could probably turn a similar amount of attention to roughly two-thirds of the thirty decks I presented in October and produce polished and competitive decks. This isn’t bragging: It is a testament to what happens during playtesting and repeatedly seeing how a deck performs against lots of diverse decks. It is a fun process and a creative one. I love seeing how decks evolve and the epiphany that pushes a deck into a contender is superbly satisfying. In some ways, seeing a single deck transform like this is cooler than brainstorming dozens of first-generation decklists.
A final question to ask is whether creating a deck from scratch like this and playtesting it to death is worth it. Clearly the deck I would take to a tournament is considerably different from my initial idea and it took me a lot of time and effort to generate Rage-Wood. Moreover, Rage-Wood is probably now on equal turf with most Net decks, so I am not gaining a lot of competitiveness by spending my time and energy.
I can only answer that for me, the benefits of succeeding with a rogue deck – something I have created myself or with friends – far outweighs the time costs. That puzzled urge to play more games from an opponent, the smiles I receive from opponents, the small crowd that gathers around me at the Top 8 table, and the pride I feel when I win each match with my own creation… all of these things justify the effort.
As always, have fun out there,
“doctorjay” on Magic