PV’s Playhouse – How to Avoid Bad Ideas

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Friday, October 9th – We’ve all had bad deck ideas. We’ve all had good deck ideas. Today, Paulo Vitor Damo da Rosa shows us how to avoid the former and embrace the latter. With Zendikar adding a fresh batch of goodness to the Constructed mix, can PV lead us towards breaking the format?


I wish I was starting this article with “Today I am writing from Australia,” but that is unfortunately not the case. I had plans to go, but the ticket turned out to be far more expensive than I thought, and I also needed to get the Australian visa, which took time and a lot of money, so in the end I decided against it. Instead, I am stuck home, jealous of my friends who are over there… Oh well, I really hope they have more Grand Prix tournaments in Australia, since it is one of the places I would really like to visit and I’ll probably jump in the next opportunity. Anyway, on today’s article…

Sometime ago, I read an article in Portuguese from a friend of mine, Lucas Berthoud, on the subject of how to avoid bad ideas. I thought his article was pretty interesting, and my article for today is inspired in his. Given that I was part of pretty much all the conversations that inspired his article, I don’t really feel bad for stealing the idea, hehe!

“Most decks are really bad. Most ideas about decks are really bad. Even very good players have bad ideas all the time. Even though this is pretty obvious, the most common reason behind tournament failures those days is the attachment to bad ideas” — Lucas

Every time a new set is released, people have plenty of ideas. Most of them are really bad. It’s only natural — with every new card come infinite possibilities, and everyone wants to be the first person to come up with something different and good. Every Magic player dreams of going to a tournament and having a different and killer deck that no one else was prepared for (or at least I assume every Magic player does — I do). The only way to do that is to test different things, to think outside the box. However, one must know when to stop – as the tournament approaches, reality has to kick in.

As I said, most ideas are really bad, and to be successful you must be able to differentiate between the ones that have potential and the ones that don’t — this is the goal of my article today.

The first thing you need to know is that you should classify ideas as “good ideas” and “bad ideas,” not as “my ideas” and “other people’s ideas.” Of course, ideas have greater potential when they come from someone good — if Tomoharo Saito tells you a certain deck is good, it is more likely to be good than if your friend Jason tells you a deck is good — so naturally if you are a good player you are more likely to be drawn to your own ideas. But, once the initial rush is past, the origin of the idea has nothing to do with how good it is. If the best player in the world suggests something and it is bad, it’s still going to be bad!

A lot of the time players want to stick with something that is clearly bad because it was their idea. They want the recognition, the fame, and the assurance that they too can build something different and good, and this is clearly a recipe for failure. You could take a look, for example, in the forums for my article that talked about a recent StarCityGames.com $5000 tournament. In the article, I talked about a terrible deck being terrible. I gave arguments as to why it was terrible. Then, in the forum, I got responses like these:

“This deck is good, because my friend Jason (we will call him Jason for this article’s sake) built it.”
“Do you know who Jason is? He has 15 PTQ top 8s — of course his choices are good.”
“Jason is known for being an unorthodox deckbuilder. This is why his choices look weird.”

Well, surprise, none of those is actually an argument for why the deck is good. I couldn’t care less who built the deck, the choices are either correct or not!

Another common mistake is to like something because it’s different, funny, splashy — basically anything other than “good.” In a game of tournament Magic, you play for one thing only — three points. Nothing else matters — killing your opponent with Llanowar Elves on turn 20 is the same three points as killing him with a double-striked Progenitus on turn 2, and losing to your opponent’s Tarmogoyf is the same zero points as losing to your opponent’s Tarmogoyf “but at least I got my Progenitus in play, my deck works!”

This is true when playing too. I remember we were playing a casual draft in Boston, to prepare for the GP – I was watching a match between Gerry Thompson and someone else, and Gerry, who was at a low life total, attacked with his Llanowar Elves into his opponent’s Serra Angel. The opponent, who was at about 19 life, went into the tank for about 5 minutes before finally deciding to take the one damage, dropping to eighteen. Then Gerry asked “what were you thinking, how can it possibly be right to block there?” to which I jokingly replied “well, if he catches your bluff he gets honor points.” The truth is, a game of Magic does not have honor or style points. Sure, you will feel happier with yourself if you catch their bluff, but is it the best play? It is definitely not helping you achieve your ultimate goal — the three points.

Judging ideas by the person who had them also works the opposite way — it is not because someone who you would not normally trust suggested something that it’s automatically wrong. I’m guilty of this far more than of the previous one — most of the time, I’ll dismiss something because it was a specific person who said it, but I know this is not the way I should act. For example, I will usually automatically ignore everything Mike Flores says, but sometimes he is correct and I’m only doing myself a disservice if I don’t acknowledge those times.

To know what is good, since seeing who suggested it is not enough, things need to make sense — there needs to be a reason. I’ve written about this already, but I like to have reasons for everything I do — I very rarely make a play “because,” and there is always a decision behind it. It is common with people who started playing not long ago (and with some people who have been playing for a long time too) to reply “I don’t know” when you ask them why they made a particular play. You must know the reason for everything you do in a game of Magic, and you must also know the reason why each card is in your deck. A lot of people just cannot understand the concept of “why you should play this,” and most of them will just give you the card text when asked about it. Imagine the following conversations:

“You have to play Bloodbraid Elf in your deck, dude?”
“It’s 3/2, and you get a free spell for only four mana.”
“And it has Haste too!”
“Yeah! We are totally thinking on the same level now.”
“Okay, four Bloodbraids…”

The above is the typical conversation between two people that at FNM. Now, this:

“You must play Bloodbraid Elf in your deck, dude.”
“Well, your deck needs some sort of card advantage to keep up with the Blue decks, otherwise you have no chance to win the long game. Bloodbraid is a good way to do that while still applying pressure and not losing tempo to draw cards.”
“And 3/2 is the perfect size, since it trades with all the commonly played creatures nowadays.”
“Okay, 4 Bloodbraids…”

The above is the typical conversation at a much higher level!

Basically, everyone knows the card texts already, and those who don’t I’m sure will have no problem reading it – repeating it is not an argument for why the card should be in your deck. Neither is:

“Why do you play Lotus Cobra?”
“Because it’s broken.”

Some time ago, I read a series of books called The Sword of Truth. Yes, I know there are a lot of Terry Goodkind haters on the forums, but it’s a good lesson! Remember, it doesn’t matter who the idea came from if it’s a good idea. I might have mentioned this already, and forgive me if I have, but at some point Madison used to have drafts with four or five pro tour champions in them but there is something in it that is called “The Wizard’s First Rule,” which states “People will believe something either because they want it to be true or because they fear it might be true,” and I remember writing about that applying to game situations, but it definitely applies to deck choices too, mostly when you are testing a new deck.

I’ve been on this spot about a hundred times — in fact, every time I have to choose a deck. I always build something that looks incredibly cool, and then I play it and it wins! Then I get so happy because I found the deck I wanted, and suddenly I’m trying so hard to convince myself it’s good and I should play it — you know, kind of a “I want to believe” thing. This is a trap you just cannot fall into —wishing it to be good does not make a deck good. Sometimes you’ve spent so much time in a deck that you don’t want that time to go to waste, so you just keep convincing yourself it’s good. A good signal is when you start saying things like “wow you got so lucky” to your testing partner ten games in a row, or things like “well, no one at that tournament is going to play this card that beats me, even though you are playing it!” At that point you have to start thinking if that is true, and maybe the deck is not as good as you thought it was. Sure, you did spend the last two weeks perfecting it, but is it worth it? Just like when you are writing an essay, sometimes you just have to erase the first three pages and start over, because, deep down, you know you can do better if you start again; you are just refusing to accept it.

Something like this happened to me before Pro Tour: Berlin. As soon as the set was released, I built a very cool Swans combo deck that had Swans and Chain of Plasma for the kill, and a lot of tutors and Glittering Wish for protection. It looked really good, it did everything I wanted it to do — it was powerful, fast, versatile, didn’t automatically fold to anything, and was beating most of the decks I played it against. However, at some point, other decks started to get better, and I started to not win so much anymore. I had hit close to the right build on my first try, and it was beating the first builds of the other decks, but it was not beating the right builds of the other decks, and this is what you will face in a tournament. no one is going to play their bad initial builds, everyone is going to perfect them. I was heartbroken. I had found an awesome interaction that was not very popular, and I wanted to play it! At one point, I had on my Magic Workstation the decks “Combo Swans,” “Control Swans,” “5c Swans,” “UR Swans,” “Tarmoswans,” “Dark Swans”- all attempts to play the interaction I had stuck on my mind. None of them really worked, and in the end I was forced to abandon the idea, no matter how long I had spent on it.

It also happened in Yokohama, which was Block Constructed, but at that time I failed to realize that, and it was my downfall. Since the beginning we were playing with White Weenie, and it was really good, so we just focused on White Weenie instead of perfecting all the other decks. As a result, our opposition in playtesting was not as strong as our actual opposition on the Pro Tour — everyone’s Teaching deck was better than ours, and beat White Weenie better than ours. The reason I did not realize that was that I was so happy to have found a good deck so early, so happy not to have to go through the painful process of choosing a deck yet another time, that I blinded myself to the facts. I kept repeating “no, WW is good, WW is good” in my mind, and so I stuck to my bad idea and promptly went 3-5 in a format where WW had close to zero good matchups.

The complete opposite thing happened in Barcelona. In Barcelona, as you know if you read my other articles, I had access to the Swans deck before anyone else, and I had had such strong experiences with attaching myself to an idea from the beginning that I was wary to repeat it. I was afraid the deck was not actually good, but it was merely me trying to convince myself that it was good, as I had done on multiple other occasions. It was “The Boy Who Cried Wolf” tale — every day a boy tells everyone in his village that there is a wolf approaching, but when the villagers panic and check, there is never a wolf… the boy is lying. One day there actually is a wolf approaching, but no one believes him and all his sheep get eaten. It was only after a lot of practice that I realized the deck was actually good, and I was being silly — and it turned out it was really the best deck for that tournament — so, my fear of fooling myself almost made me throw away the chance I was given.

This is it — when you stick to an idea, make sure it is because it’s actually good, and not because it is yours, or innovative, or because you just want it to work. If something turns out to be bad, do not get attached to it, as being realistic pays up a lot more in the long run if your goal is to win at Magic.

I hope you’ve enjoyed this, and see you next week!