Removed From Game — Choosing Your Deck

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With multiple high-level Constructed tournaments taking place around the globe featuring seats at the World Championships up for grabs, Rich Hagon gives us a guide to Choosing Your Deck. Drawing on the disciplines of psychology, politics and philosophy, but sadly not physiology or physiognomy, the man from mox is heading for Nationals with a clear idea of what you should play if you’re good, and an even better idea of what you should play if you’re not.

This article replaces The Online Outlook, which will be running tomorrow.

(Note : This article uses by way of example preparations for UK and U.S. Nationals which take place later this week. However, if you’re French, Italian, Australian or Dutch, or aren’t even playing at your Nationals this year, hopefully there are ideas here which you’ll find useful when preparing for any Constructed event.)

This week, you’ll be getting a little less to read about, and a lot more to think about. So if you’re not ready for a mental workout, you know what to do (go read Paul Jordan’s article on setting up your own draft tracking software, obviously.)

With the fabulous M-Fest only a few days away (four days of non-stop Magic here in the UK, with the UK Nationals being the centerpiece) hundreds of players are trying to narrow down their options for Standard. This year, that task is harder than ever for several reasons. First, the pool of cards available is so vast. Ravnica, Guildpact, Dissension, Coldsnap, Time Spiral, Timeshifted, Planar Chaos, Future Sight, and Tenth Edition (Core, X, Base, call it what you like). That’s 1,879 different cards, all but five of them played in any number from 0 to 4 in a deck of at least 60 cards. In terms of permutations for possible decks, that works out at… a big number, probably involving phrases like “two point eight times ten to the twenty-third power” or something. Now that’s big.

Still, the number of cards doesn’t mean an awful lot all by itself. Think of an ordinary deck of cards, for example. If I add in a bunch of 2s and 3s, I don’t stop people from wanting to play with their Aces. Indeed, because I’ve added this random dross to the bottom of the pile, Aces have become rarer and thus even more highly valued. The only time these 2s and 3s make a significant difference is if we’re playing a game like Rummy, where you’re trying to collect sets, and so having all those extra 2s and 3s gives them great extra value. In Magic terms, Coldsnap is my collection of 2s and 3s joining the card pool. In Coldsnap draft, I’m certainly going to play with a bunch of these cards, and they may win me games, but for Standard, most aren’t going to make the cut.

The key therefore, is not quantity but quality. Even this is misleading, however. Those of you who have been around for a while know that there has been a philosophical shift within Wizards R&D in the last few years, to essentially flatten the quality “curve.” This means that there are now far fewer authentic standout rares in each new expansion, and a large number of viable cards that, given the right love and support, can be the cornerstone, or at least the cement, in a huge number of deck archetypes. This approach is pretty much good for everyone. Players aren’t forced into an archetype they don’t like just because the Best Deck (whatever that means) doesn’t conform to their favored strategy. They don’t have to go out to a tournament in the certain knowledge that if they haven’t managed to trade for or purchase four copies of the latest hot card that their deck will be, to put it politely, suboptimal. There is no longer a whole swathe of players who more or less play in tournaments as “Second Class Citizens.” They know they haven’t got the budgets to compete with the forty-rares netdecks, so they bring their thoroughly untuned homebrew decks, knowing that they’re going to get battered. Those days are pretty much gone. For traders, a flatter pricing structure means they don’t have to open dozens of boxes and cast aside hundreds of rubbish rares just to find the one golden piece of cardboard they can flog for $30. For dedicated deckbuilders, there are so many quirky cards lurking around the different expansions that the chance to go rogue has never been greater. Even for those builders who just want to customise an existing archetype, there are a plethora of options. You only need to look at Time Spiral Block Constructed right now, and the near-infinite variety of U/B Control decks to see the wide world of choice now available.

And right now, this sucks.


Because in three days time, you’ve got to sit down either here in the UK or across the pond in the U.S. and take a Standard deck into the heat of battle with a place at the World Championships at stake. Luckily, I don’t lie awake at night worrying about this, because I get to just watch it all unfold and tell you what’s happening over on MagicTheGathering.com, starting on Thursday. (All four days with comprehensive audio coverage, thanks to Lee Singleton and the team at WOTC UK. Seamless advertising, splendid.) Judging by the people I’ve talked to in the past week on both sides of the Atlantic, plenty of people have no clue what to play. What I propose to do is provide you with a series of approaches to finding the right deck for you to play, whether it’s at a massive Nationals, or a PTQ, or even (lucky you) the Pro Tour itself. Many of these techniques and ideas overlap, and you’ll need to find by trial and error which ones work best for you. That’s fine. Just dip in, and see what happens. So let’s start with some thoughts about…

The Metagame

John Sittner gave me the perfect guide to the metagame in Geneva earlier this year. Here it is:

“Who plays what.”

There, and you were thinking The Metagame sounded quite scary. But Sittner’s right, the metagame is simply a set of choices — which players play which deck. And in general terms, the more players that gravitate to a certain deck, the more that “defines” the metagame. So, in Yokohama for Block Constructed for example, which had a relatively small pool of cards available, the metagame more or less broke down into White Weenie as an extremely powerful deck in the abstract, a Mono-Red Aggro deck that absolutely destroyed the White Weenie decks, a big mana mid-range G/R deck with enormous monsters like Spectral Force and Bogardan Hellkite, and a variety of Control strategies mostly grouped together under a U/B Teferi banner. The Mono-Red deck, incidentally, is a prime example of a so-called Metagame deck, which essentially means that lots of players sat around before the event saying “White Weenie is a really good deck, which if left unchecked will simply annihilate everything in sight. So what we need is a deck that beats White Weenie.” It’s hard to argue that card for card the Red decks were better than their White counterparts, but they were certainly the better choice for that particular tournament. Even Willy Edel couldn’t deal with that much hate for the White critters.

The problem with an analysis like this is that it’s based on a pretty small system. Block Constructed is always the Constructed format that most closely resembles the mythical rock/paper/scissors nature of Magic, because there aren’t the sheer volume of cards needed to promote a large range of viable (i.e. potential Pro Tour winning) strategies. This is definitely not the case in Standard right now. Wizards have done their job very nicely thank you, and a metagame of staggering variety and possibility that was unveiled to the world in Honolulu last year has continued to evolve most satisfactorily. Here’s the latest MTGO Standard lists, courtesy of the Fanatic himself, Frank Karsten.

Deck name Average Week 25 Week 26 Week 27 Week 28
Solar Flare 13% 13% 14% 12% 12%
Dralnu du Louvre 11% 10% 14% 5% 13%
Gruul Aggro 10% 12% 13% 9% 7%
Dragonstorm 8% 7% 10% 16% 3%
Zoo Aggro 8% 17% 7% 3% 5%
W/B Control 7% 4% 1% 15% 13%
NarcoBridge 7% 5% 14% 2% 4%
Mono Green Aggro 4% 2% 4% 4% 5%
Mono Blue Pickles 3% 1% 1% 6% 6%
Angelfire 3% 3% 6% 1% 0%
U/B Tron 3% 0% 4% 3% 4%
Touch-Blink 3% 0% 2% 0% 8%
U/R Perilous Storm 2% 4% 2% 0% 2%
Mono Black Rack Discard 2% 7% 1% 1% 0%
Satanic Sligh 2% 6% 1% 0% 1%

If you’ve taken even a passing interest in Standard over the past year or so, you’ve probably got a very good idea of at least a bunch of the cards that go in every one of the Top 10 decks here, and probably a good few of the rest. Here’s just some of the things these 15 decks let you do for fun and profit in Magic right now:

Solar Flare — Make enormous permanent-killing Angels, and near-unkillable Vampires.
Dralnu — Counter or kill everything in the known world and win with 2/2s for eight mana.
Gruul — Foolish Tarmogoyf, quality burn, and 9/7 suspend-a-don.
Dragonstorm — Turn 4, and that’s a Combotastic good game.
Zoo — More Tarmogoyf entertainment, plus friendly Watchwolf and more fireworks.
W/B Control — Apparently there’s eight Wrath of Gods in Standard. Monster = bin.
NarcoBridge — Sick graveyard shenanigans, and Flame-Kin Zealot for the win. Insane.
Mono Green — Kill you very very quickly. Cloak, Krosa, Invocation, these guys get large.
Pickles — Say no, say morph, say unmorph, say turn face down, say unmorph, turn face down…
Angelfire — Hasty flyers, and blow up the World, or your opponent’s face. Can’t stop it.
U/B Tron — All the mana in the known universe, made useful.
Touch-Blink — The king of the bouncy castle, Venser, Riftwing, Blink, boing, boing, boing….
Perilous Storm — Hatch some Plans, same sick combo entertainment.
Rack Discard — Can’t do much without a hand, can you? Not even scratch your nose.
Satanic Sligh — For those who don’t like animals, but like to kill just the same.

It’s a truly great environment. Other than 22 counterspells plus 8 Wrath of God plus Whispers of the Muse and an Aladdin’s Ring as the win condition, there’s almost nothing you could possibly want to do, and not have the tools available to do it.

All this variety is great, but it gives us a real headache when choosing what deck to play. After all, even the most popular deck only represents approximately one in eight of any given field of decks. Expand this to the notional Top 4, and you’re up to more than 40% of the popular decks. But all this tells you is that 40% of the time you can expect to face either mid-range Control, full-on U/B Counter-Control, blazingly fast Aggro, or even more blazingly fast Combo! That’s no help at all. And of course, this list is of precisely no help at all because Tenth became legal for Standard a few days ago, completely rendering the data useless.

Actually, what I just said there isn’t true. What’s gone before is a great starting point for what’s coming up. Of course Tenth is going to have an impact on Standard, but we can make a good guess at what that impact can be. You could, all by yourself, go and look through all the sample decklists for these major archetypes and see what’s gone missing from Ninth when Tenth replaced it. Or, because you’ve got eyes and a brain, you could let the good folks at StarCityGames.com do it for you. If you haven’t already done so, go and read all the excellent articles on this very site about the changes in Tenth. If you like Black control, you’re going to be a little bit upset — no Persecute, no Phyrexian Arena. If you like Dragonstorm, you’re going to be very upset — no Seething Song, no Sleight of Hand. If you like Life From The Loam, you’re going to be very pleased, because Tenth has Seismic Assault. And if you’re a goblin horde kind of guy, you’re going to be very pleased to see the back of Worship.

But whatever the changes, many of these fifteen decks will remain, either mostly intact, or using the core strategies to evolve into a post-Tenth world. If I had to recommend just one article to get you up to speed on this, it would have to be Flores Friday — Delta Ex. As you can see, the field is still going to be extremely varied and exciting.

We don’t want varied. We don’t want exciting. We want to choose a deck that’s just going to annihilate everything in sight next weekend and send us off to New York in December. So if, as it appears, we can choose almost any strategy from across the Magical spectrum and at least have a shot at making it work, how do we choose?


“Testing lies” is, I believe, a phrase attributed most often to Zvi Mowshowitz. If you’re fairly new to the game, this may seem like an odd thing to say, especially when you bear in mind that Zvi, all things being equal, is likely to become a Hall of Famer later this year, so presumably knows what he’s talking about. Well, he does. Testing is great for a number of things. Testing can help you to understand the fundamental ideas and strategies of your deck. Testing can help you find unexpected corners to the rules of Magic that don’t come up very often (playing with Extirpate has led to all sorts of discussions about the passing of priority in an opponent’s upkeep). Testing can help you use cards in unusual ways. (Why would I cast Temporal Isolation on my own attacking monster? Because I have Condemn to get rid of the monster with damage on the stack, thus winning me the game). Testing can show you what other deck archetypes are trying to do. Testing can give you a feel for the tempo of the format. How many turns do the Aggro decks take to kill me on average? Testing can help you. Testing can show up holes in your deck, where you find yourself constantly battered by one particular card or card type in an opposing deck. Testing can improve your sideboarding against different archetypes. Testing can show you what kind of decks you are naturally good or bad at playing optimally. Testing can allow you to rewind and play out multiple versions of the same scenario, and learn what the correct play was.

Here’s what testing can’t do :

Testing can NEVER EVER EVER EVER EVER tell you the result of an upcoming match.

If you ever hear somebody say at a tournament of a particular matchup “Oh, it’s definitely in my favor, sometimes as much as 90-10,” they are lying, self-delusional, or both. First of all, any matchup in Magic history has a range of 0-100% to 100-0%, and no matter what the mighty tester says, every deck (with the exception of some smartypants 60 basic land always on the draw affair) has a theoretical chance against another. You may have a 90% chance of beating my deck game one, and a 90% chance of beating my deck game 2, but that still gives me a 1% chance of beating you 2-0. And if that happens, your testing results were 100% wrong, because my deck actually beat yours 100% of the time. Clearly, my deck is infinitely better than yours in the matchup, because it won infinitely more matches (1) than you (0). See? Testing results are bonkers as a reliable guide to final performance.

If you still need convincing of this, argue your way out of this one. Any card change in a deck by definition changes the performance of that deck. Sideboarding is the obvious example of this, but every change during the deckbuilding process works in the same way. Even more importantly, every player will play the deck differently from time to time. Even the walkthroughs of matchups by respected pros are of little help. Here’s why. In a game like Monopoly, it’s technically possible to make the perfect play 100% of the time. Since I’ve played more games of Monopoly than you’ve had hot dinners (possibly), I and my equally adept “playtest” partner split our games almost exactly 50-50. Almost every game we play now comes down to luck, since we will both make the optimal decisions each turn. Against other people who have a life and haven’t played thousands of games of Monopoly, we’re rarely beaten. In Magic, Tiago Chan versus Kenji Tsumura playing ten games of a particular matchup may give you some clue what might happen if Tiago Chan played Kenji Tsumura, but not a lot else. Let’s be truthful about this, if we played like either Tiago Chan or Kenji Tsumura, we’d probably have our own testing results to ignore. You almost never see two decks played optimally. You only need to read Tiago’s columns to see that he has a long list of plays that he revisits to see whether things might have gone better had he chosen a different path.

So, rely on testing by all means, but testing results? Be very careful.

Choose Early

Even allowing for the fact that Tenth has seriously muddied the waters, I’m amazed at just how many players haven’t chosen their deck yet. Now I’m not talking about whether they’ve actually listed 75 cards on a piece of paper somewhere, or even the first 60. But to still be looking at Aggro, Combo, and Control with less than a week to go seems like a lack of planning. Talking to the Pros in Yokohama for Block, by far and away the majority I spoke to had settled on at least their preferred archetype several weeks in advance, and in many cases almost two months beforehand. Edel spent the last weeks devoted to tuning the White Weenie deck, Antonino De Rosa and Ben Rubin were set fair on Mono-Red almost as soon as Planar Chaos came out, and Frank Karsten amongst others was firmly committed to a Teferi-style deck long before the event. The momentum this kind of proactive decision-making can have shouldn’t be underestimated. For one thing, once you’ve chosen your deck, your entire focus is on making it win, rather than seeing how it does against other decks, or seeing whether those other decks are a better option, or even trying to find reasons not to play it. This seems counter-intuitive, but lots of players test with a deck hoping that it won’t put up the numbers that mean they ought to play it, either because they don’t like the style of the deck, or think it’s cheesy, or prone to malfunction – it could be for any number of reasons, rational or otherwise.

Choosing early also gives you the time and space to re-evaluate the card pool within the very narrow confines of your deck and what it does. Knowing that Dark Confidant is a good card isn’t really earth-shaking news. Knowing that a Dark Confidant that draws your opponent five extra cards is really good isn’t news either. But your attitude to Dark Confidant is likely to vary considerably, depending on which side of the fence you’re sitting. In a Mono-Red deck, you’re probably looking at it and thinking, “wow, I love my Mogg Fanatic.” If you’re playing G/W, you’re probably hoping that he attacks with it, because short of Condemning it, that Bob’s going to be quite the chore. And then of course, you could be the one going turn 1 Mindlash Sliver, turn 2 Bob, in which case you’re probably thinking either “I hope he doesn’t make Fanatic turn 1” or “I really hope he makes Temple Garden.” Understanding what the important cards in the format do for and against your deck is one of the absolute keys to Constructed success, and it takes time. So choose early.

The Last Minute Audible

What’s an audible, and what exactly do we mean by the Last Minute? Well, for our non-North American sports fans, an audible is borrowed from American Football, where the Quarterback (the guy who announces what the team is trying to do that “turn” or “play”) looks at the defence ranged against him, and doesn’t like what he sees. So, he calls out to his team-mates that they’re going to try something different. And since this is, literally, audible, that’s how it gets its name. In Magic, what tends to happen is that you’re still undecided going into the day of the event. For our purposes, the day of the event is well and truly the Last Minute. So you get there early, and start wandering around the tables, watching people sleeve up and complete their decklists, and hope to see a pattern emerging. At the pro level, you will often see people hovering by the dealer tables, watching what cards are becoming Sold Out. At Worlds last year, Annex and Cryoclasm were fetching silly money. This week, how many Tormod’s Crypts are leaving trade binders is likely to be of great interest to NarcoBridge players, for example. Equally, those players who are hoping to keep the Combo dream of Dragonstorm alive may be pleasantly surprised by the comprehensive lack of hate in people’s sideboards.

At this point, the temptation is to “audible” into another deck. Tormod’s Crypts were all gone, sold in ten minutes flat? Maybe Bridge isn’t the deck to play. Not much lifegain around? All the more reason to get out that Gruul deck then. Now it sounds as if this strategy is all good, so why wouldn’t we want to do it? Well, first off, it flies in the face of what we learned about Choosing Early. And second, the information you’re basing your choice on is likely to be extremely unreliable. So the Crypts aren’t available? It was Timeshifted, maybe they only had half a dozen for sale, and what do you care if two extra people are sideboarding against you, out of a field of 150 or so? Besides, maybe you didn’t see all the players who were nicely prepared in advance and are sitting there with 4 in the board already. Maybe you don’t see much G/W as you scout the tables. But then Billy Moreno walks in with a New York contingent, every single one of whom is sporting 4 Loxodon Hierarch and 4 Faiths Fetters maindeck. Bear in mind that even on the Coverage team for Pro Tours and Grand Prix, it is next to impossible to accurately predict the actual makeup of the tournament until we get to see all the decklists once Round 1 is underway. And players have very little interest in giving you free information about their deck choice.

The only time the Last Minute Audible is a good plan is when a bomb-like piece of information comprehensively changes the environment, or at least your understanding of it. If, God forbid, we get the reports from Australian Nationals, and there turns out to be a Combo deck that if left to its own devices will win on average turn 3, that would be a Last Minute warning that all Gruul players would do well to heed. Although Dragonstorm frequently killed on turn 4, which was generally a win against Gruul, it happened infrequently enough to still leave Gruul a fine choice. If a turn 3 reliable kill became apparent, that would leave all Aggro strategies in an extremely awkward place of being in a race driving the slower car. Not good. Now that’s the time to audible into U/B control which has the capacity to say no to our mythical turn 3 Combo. This caveat aside, the Last Minute Audible isn’t generally good times, even if you’re Peyton Manning.

My last section today stems from an idea that’s used to describe some different philosophies of Government. The idea is called:

The Horseshoe (Crab) of Politics

The language we use to identify political affinities is generally linear. If you were to mark the Republican and Democratic parties in the U.S. at opposite ends of a line, they would look like this:


That’s how we get the terms “left wing” and “right wing.” Also the “far right,” etc. Bear in mind that it’s often in the interests of both parties to emphasise the maximum gap between them and their rival, since it appears to give voters a straight-forward choice. But if we add in some other, more extreme political views, we get something like this:


How far to the right you place the Republicans is up to you. The fact remains that their place belongs somewhere on the “right” half of the line. Although the linear idea is easy to grasp, it hides from us some very interesting insights. In reality, politics is much more like a horseshoe, with all the mainstream parties broadly sitting in the bowl at the bottom, and almost all the extreme views nudging the tips at the top, thus:

Vote xxxx today!

Now be honest, right now you’re wondering why I didn’t take up Graphic Design as a career, right?

The horseshoe helps to explain why two views as apparently incompatible as Communism and Fascism found themselves such willing bedfellows during the Second World War. Linearly speaking they are at opposite ends of the spectrum, but within the horseshoe they are almost touching. We can use this political theory to help us choose our deck. No, truly, we really can. Here’s how:

Let’s suppose for a moment that Dragonstorm is still viable in its old turn 4 guise. Our linear metagame might look something like:


But once we turn it into the horseshoe, we can see that Bridge and Dragonstorm decks are practically touching at the top, and pretty much everything else is in a narrow hollow at the bottom. If you’re still not sure how this helps, consider these questions:

If I want to appeal to mainstream America, who should I be?
If I have a big idea and don’t care if everybody else hates it, who should I be?
If I want to change the world forever with my global ambition, who should I be?
If I want to put as much “clear blue water” between myself and my opponents, where should I be?

The answers are, respectively:

Democrat or Republican
Communist or Fascist
Communist or Fascist
Halfway up the horseshoe on either side.

The most interesting example here is number 4. If we can move away from the apparent uniformity of the middle ground at the bottom of the horseshoe, and yet avoid the extremities of Communism on the left and Fascism on the right, we can draw support from both top and bottom to our point halfway up either side of the horseshoe.

Transferring this to Metagaming a deck choice, we can see that there are problems with any of the top or bottom choices. If we choose Bridge or Dragonstorm, lots of other decks are likely to hate us very badly. That doesn’t mean we can’t win — Russia and Germany are the poster-boys for this — but it does mean that a lot of people are going to make things as difficult as possible for us. If we choose Gruul, or Zoo, or some kind of Teachings/Teferi Control affair, we have two problems. Not only do we have to hate the Bridge/Storm decks really hard, because they are so far away from us, but we also get drawn into the mudslinging of the mainstream battling it out against each other. Gruul takes out another Aggro deck, while Mono Green is just too quick for one of the Teferi contenders. Zoo didn’t get a look in against another Teachings deck, whilst another pair of Control decks fought each other to a standstill and put each other out of contention. This is the kind of thing that happens at every Magic Constructed event.

And the big winners? The decks that come in unannounced, or at least unlooked for. The decks that manage to clamber part way up the horseshoe, without attracting the hate associated with the extreme decks. The decks that have an edge over most of the field, only really losing to their counterparts on the other side of the horseshoe, where the distance between them is too great to overcome.

Armed with these ideas, we can examine exactly what you are trying to achieve at the upcoming tournament. In the case of UK or U.S. Nats, the first question you should be answering is this:

Are you better than your quarterfinal opponent?

Whoa, how did we get to the quarterfinal already? There’s six rounds of Standard and six rounds of Draft before we get there. Surely I need to know what I’m playing in Round 1? Well, not really. See, assuming that your goal is to get to New York for Worlds, there’s only one match that counts all weekend, and that’s the quarterfinal. If you didn’t get that far, for whatever reason, you’re not in a position to have your deck choice influence that match. You’re watching it, not playing it. Equally, it really doesn’t matter how you got there. 3-3 in Standard, including one opponent match loss, two wins due to manascrew or flood and three unwinnable matches, coupled with 6-0 in Draft — that’s fine. All that matters is that you got there. And now you have to answer the question. Are you better than your quarterfinal opponent?

Yes, thanks for asking, I am.

Good for you. In that case, you want to play a deck that’s going to give you as much chance to outplay your opponent as possible. In the quarterfinal you have a maximum of five games, so up to 80% of the matchup will be decided post-sideboarding. Therefore, to run a deck that sits at the tip of the horseshoe seems weak. Even I can get to turn 4 and kill you with double Lotus Bloom into double Rite of Flame into Dragonstorm. There doesn’t seem to be a lot of room for outplaying an opponent with a deck like this. NarcoBridge potentially kills very quickly, but has very little interaction with the opponent, in an ideal world. For either of these decks, the problem of hate coming your way is significant. Tormod’s Crypt and Mogg Fanatic and Extirpate and Trickbind are cards that are good against your best mate and against Tomaharu Saitou, which is especially true if your best mate is Tomaharu Saitou.

If you play one of the decks at the bottom of the horseshoe, you have a good chance of outplaying your opponent if they’ve chosen from the same section of the horseshoe. But if you’re facing the one remaining Bridge deck in the tournament, you could be just nine turns from oblivion over three very unfair games. This is essentially what happened to the Japanese pair in the semi-final of San Diego earlier this month. They ran into an extreme deck, and “normal” Magic couldn’t touch it. As an aside, part of Lachmann and van Lunen’s success was that they were able to move about the horseshoe from draft to draft, sometimes being as extreme as in their Top 4 draft, sometimes conventional aggro plus removal, sometimes very defensive and controlling. The one thing their strategy had throughout the weekend was that they were essentially at a mid-point on the horseshoe on either side, rarely being drawn into the bloodbath at the base or the hateable-to-the-point-of-destruction tips.

Clearly, you are looking for a deck that auto-loses to as little as possible. Cards like Wrath of God give you a shot against any kind of creature swarm. Black point removal is always going to let you deal with pesky haste irritants like Treetop Villages and the like. Cancel may not be a good counterspell, but it does counter a spell, and you (split second aside) get to decide what. Pre-Tenth, a deck like Solar Flare or Angelfire would be the kind of decks that would, between maindeck and boarding, give you a shot against most people playing most things.

No, sadly, I’m not better than my quarterfinal opponent.

So you had a great ride, and got to the quarters, but you know that if you’ve done that then you’ve realistically been pretty lucky through the weekend, and that there are going to be a lot of players still left who are better than you at the game. This is the time to learn the lessons of history and go for the extreme. There are several good reasons for this:

1: As we’ve seen, the extreme strategies have the best chance of spectacular victories (the pre-Tenth Dragonstorm had a turn 1 kill for example, with the perfect opening hand). If your opponent is better than you, the fewer turns you give them to exploit their superiority, the better.
2: Extreme decks are by their nature often very narrow in their goals and strategies. Whether it’s “add up to nine” (Dragonstorm), “put everything in the bin and then out again” (Bridge), or “counter everything in the world ever” (Mono-Blue Ophidian-style decks), you can probably quickly work out what you’re trying to do, and then try and do it.
3: Communism and Fascism may not ultimately have been successful, but boy the party (or even the Party) was fun while it lasted. From your point of view, you don’t have to wait 70 years to see the Communist experiment fail. If you’re lucky, you can be in on the ground floor of 1917, and to hell with the consequences.
4: You only need the world to be looking the wrong way for three miserable little games, and then, before they know it and can do anything about it, you’re off to Worlds. Carnage.

I would hope by now it’s pretty clear what kind of deck you should be playing. Pre-Tenth, Dragonstorm would have been ideal for you. I’m prepared to stick my neck out and say this: if you can make Dragonstorm work post-Tenth, you absolutely will get to Worlds this week. With all the hate vanishing in the wake of Sleight and Song’s removal from the scene, players everywhere are forgetting how completely sick the Storm mechanic still is. All you have to do is still be alive when you get there. Meanwhile Bridge is a legitimate option, but if our horseshoe tells us anything it’s that what you are truly looking for is an entirely new Combo deck, using some of the cards from Tenth in unlooked for ways with (probably) unfashionable cards from elsewhere in the environment. (Coldsnap is always a good place to start looking for interactions like this, since everyone hates Coldsnap and tends to pretend, Cryoclasm apart, that it never existed.) If you can make a new Combo deck that really works, chances are that you’ll win your Nationals at a canter. On day 1 of the unstoppable new Combo deck, nothing, but nothing, gets to derail it.

Okay, two more questions, and we’re done. They’re two sides of the same coin.

How do I see myself winning?

Positive Visualisation is a mammoth topic, and one I propose to talk about with you on another occasion. But for now, just imagine that I’m commentating on your decisive matchup over on MagictheGathering.com. We’re coming up to the crucial moment when all your Magic dreams come true. So what’s the script? Is it:

1: “He taps four mana, the crowd lean in, this could be the backbreaker. It is, that’s a second Loxodon Hierarch on the table for Craig Stevenson, and for the second year running the Editor of Doom has won the UK Championships. Elephants for the win…”
2: “Rigby looks thoroughly unperturbed. That Gargadon looks like quite a threat to me, and he’s all tapped out. The Gargadon attacks, and Rigby has no blockers…. but what’s this? Ohhhhhhh, SNAPBACK your Gargadon Mr Red Mage, no nine damage for you, and surely now Neil Rigby will be crowned UK Champion 2007.”
3: “And history repeats itself. After a dreadful run of form, one White and one Red mana has come to the rescue of Craig the Professor Jones. Lightning Helix has struck twice, and Jones is going to New York.”

Perhaps for you it’s none of these. If for any of you the card was Psychotic Episode or Sprout, I would like a decklist immediately please. However, you visualised those fabulous few moments when everything went right, so act on it. If you’re going to be playing a deck from the bottom of the horseshoe, then personal preference and playstyle is really important, and an exercise like this, where you imagine a board position without regard to how you got there, is invaluable in revealing your true preferences. Often when people do this, they discover that although they’ve been playing a Combo deck for years, what they actually long for is a hasted-up enormous monster followed by a Char to the face. However you see yourself winning, go with it. In Magic, there may not always be a way to win, but there’s almost always a way to lose. When you act in concord with your subconscious — which is what we’re tapping into here — every time something good happens, you gain strength as the dream begins to take shape, and your subconscious is a powerful ally in realizing your goals. Like I said, we’ll talk more about this another time.

Meanwhile, here’s the flipside:

What Won’t You Lose To?

In San Diego it was interesting to see what people hated losing to. It turned out to be Storm. Akroma’s Memorial, fine. Sprout Swarm, irritating, but fine. Slivers, blimey, but fine. Boom/Bust, Damnation, Desolation Giant, all fine. But Ignite Memories, Volcanic Awakening, Empty the Warrens, and Dragonstorm? Not fair, call for Mother, call for Judge, anything, just not that! For each of us there are cards that we just don’t want to lose to. For me right now, that would be Bridge From Below. I mean, what’s the point of trailing all the way to Nationals only to spend three turns watching your opponent indulge in what is known — albeit not in polite society — as Masturbation Magic? No, sorry, you irritating little Combo merchant, there are 4 Tormod’s Crypts in my sideboard because I don’t like you and I will not lose to you. Of course this is no guarantee that I won’t actually lose to a Bridge deck, but it shows me where in the metagame I’d like to be. If I really didn’t want to lose to “cheesy” Aggro, then I’d probably be looking at getting some serious lifegain into my deck of choice, not to mention some backbreaking boardsweepers. And talking of sweepers, if Lotus Blooms or Chroniclers or Detritivores or Gargadons weren’t my thing, I’d be toying with Riftsweeper.


I am such a liar. 6,568 words ago I told you this week was going to be shorter. Short sentences. Encapsulated ideas. Help!

Meantime, I’ll leave you with this thought. When it comes to Constructed, we spend a huge amount of time talking about cards, and sideboards, and decks. Whatever collection of 75 you decide to pilot at your next tournament, take ownership of your deck. When you lose, you lose, not the deck. When you win, you win. Through Nationals weekend there are times when you won’t find what you want on top of your deck. But there’ll be times too when what’s on top of your deck can be made to do what you want. And that’s up to you.

Wherever you’re next playing Constructed Magic, may the very best of luck and the very best of skill go with you, and may your deck of choice be halfway up the horseshoe!

As ever,

Thanks for reading.