Right Answer, Wrong Question

Monday, January 24th – Magic is all about asking the right questions, not necessarily having answers. Matt Sperling explains how testing on Magic Online led him astray for GP Atlanta. Bonus Section: Teferi fan fiction!

While I was studying for the California bar exam, the instructors taught us that in the essay portion, if you have no idea how to answer a question,
just write about a related topic that you do know about. The graders will give some credit for a well thought-out answer, even if it doesn’t
answer the question posed. For example, if the question prompts you to discuss the admissibility of some evidence (a murder weapon) found in an
illegally searched vehicle, and you draw a complete blank about that topic, a discussion of the difference between first-degree murder, second-degree
murder, and manslaughter doesn’t answer the question at all, but it will receive more points than “I don’t know.” Some lawyers
carry this lesson into their practice following the bar, which is really annoying when combined with the fact that they rarely know the answer or want
to answer the actual question posed.

In Magic, deckbuilding is problem solving. And here as well, solving the wrong problem only gets you partial credit. “How do I beat this U/B
Control deck that won Worlds?” is only the right question if you can expect to play against it every round. “How do I beat U/B Control and
also Valakut?” is closer to a question worth focusing on. “How do I beat U/B Control and Valakut while maintaining decent numbers against
RUG and aggro?” might be the real question posed by a particular, upcoming Standard event. You might get “partial credit,” like an X-2
finish, by answering the wrong question, but the Top 8 is likely to elude you.  

Grand Prix Atlanta Poses a Different Question than Magic Online

I’m not a MODO (Magic Online) grinder. I play a draft here and there, a Sealed Deck event once every other month, and some Momir Basic. But for
Atlanta, I wanted to try and test online for a number of reasons. Gabriel Nassif was willing to help me prepare even though he wasn’t attending
the event. He would let me borrow cards as well, which is a huge help. I also got on a very strange sleep schedule due to poker, so I found myself
wanting to test at hours like 4-7 am. Finally, the fact that Extended PTQs were happening on MODO gave me confidence that good games would be easy to
find; people would be trying to solve the same problem I was.

What I quickly learned about the online metagame is that Faeries is very popular. It’s so popular that Nassif and I ended up solving the problem
“How do I beat Faeries and beat the decks that beat Faeries?” We needed to beat Faeries, Naya, Mythic, Mono-Red, and Jund (even though it
isn’t great against Faeries, it’s always there), as these were the decks we kept playing against. 4CC, Wargate, U/W Control – these
decks were there, and we sometimes played against them, but getting “partial credit” in these matchups, something like 40-45%, was

We got the following deck to perform very, very well on MODO, over a large sample size (between myself, Heezy, and Nassif testing and tweaking the

Not Being Scared to Run 11-12 Birds

Nassif’s idea to play twelve mana-producing one-drops (not all actual Birds, but close enough) was met with skepticism from everyone who
encountered the decklist for the first time. “Isn’t that just too many?” “Do you need that many?” “How bad is
Bloodbraid Elf going to be in this deck?” were my initial reactions. Then a funny thing happened (we had all twelve one-drops at the time and
only much later trimmed to eleven); I played several games with the deck and didn’t lose much.

One-drops are incredibly important right now in Extended for the aggressive decks. I wish I’d decided to play Tattermunge Maniac at Worlds, but at
least I figured it out in time to get Greg Hatch to play with them in the PTQ he won. Whether it’s with Naya, Mono-Red, or R/G Beats, the draws
that contain one-drops drastically outperform those that don’t. The control decks will be behind in tempo, where you need them to be, right from
the start when you play a guy on turn 1. The combo decks will need to be raced most of the time, and starting on turn 1 actually lets you do that some
of the time. Decks like Jund and Naya will have more powerful midgames than Mono-Red or R/G Beats, but if they’re too far behind and find themselves
blocking Vengevine to stay alive or are within burn range of Mono-Red, it won’t matter.

Also, with Vengevine in the deck, Bloodbraid Elf into Llanowar or Birds isn’t actually a bad deal. It isn’t optimal as cascades go, but
making your cascades better just isn’t worth making your turns 1-3 worse. In addition to Vengevine, Fauna Shaman is another great way to use
extra Birds and Elves.

What about vulnerability to sweepers such as Volcanic Fallout and Day of Judgment? Much of the time, your board can just be Birds + Fauna Shaman or
Birds + Ram-Gang or a few Birds and a Vengevine against control decks. They’ll need to use one of their few spot removal spells to avoid just
dying to what you have out (especially Shaman) or else will need to blow their sweeper and let you reload. This deck is tremendously effective at
putting out a fast enough clock that they have to use a sweeper without over-committing. And when they do sweep, twelve of your guys have haste to
start attacking again right away; several don’t die to fallout; some kill lands on their way in to keep you ahead; and some return from the
graveyard to attack some more.

Isn’t Naya just Better? Knight of the Reliquary and Linvala are Good Cards!

Much of the answer to this concern appears above in our discussion of one-drops. We get to play more of them, and ours come out turn 1 more often,
since our mana is better. Regarding missing certain white cards, speed and consistency are simply more important to the aggressive deck than these
powerful cards. Either deck will win easily with an un-killed Fauna Shaman out. Ours is just faster and more aggressive without it, and more

The interesting effect Naya had on our deck is that we were doing much better on MODO before Naya was a big presence in the metagame. As people
prepared to beat Sparkmage and Fauna Shaman, guess what, they were more often able to beat our Fauna Shamans and Sparkmages, even though they had never
seen our deck before. Our win rate on MODO declined a little but was still strong.

GP Atlanta’s Metagame Just Wasn’t the Same

The main lesson I learned about testing on MODO is that it’s very easy to be answering the wrong question, or solving the wrong metagame. R/G Valakut,
and to a lesser extent, Omen Valakut, aren’t that popular on MODO, since they struggle to beat Faeries. R/G Valakut folds like a tent when faced
with Thoughtseize, Vendilion Clique, and Cryptic Command. On MODO, “hoping to dodge Fae” is like running across the 405 Freeway. At the GP,
hoping to dodge Faeries was a legitimate strategy, especially among those with two or fewer byes. Many people took this gambit.

I began the tournament with three byes, a win against Jund, a win against Faeries, and a win against Naya. So far, so good. 6-0 against what looks like
a cross section of the online metagame.  

One quick note on how I beat that Naya player in round 6. In game 3, he had mulliganed to five but emerged with a god draw nonetheless. He had turn 2
Knight of the Reliquary (off Hierarch), turn 3 Bloodbraid into Woolly Thoctar, turn 4 Linvala, Keeper of Silence on the play. I had kept a turn 2
Sparkmage draw, normally effective (especially against mulligans), but not so much on the draw against my opponent’s start. On turn 4, I cast a
Vengevine to go with my two Birds, Fauna Shaman, and Sparkmage that Linvala was owning. Opponent untapped, Path to Exiled my Vengevine (his draw was
one of the best five-carders possible), and attacked for a million. I traded Shaman for Bloodbraid, chumped with the Birds, and went to nine life. I
untapped and played a sixth land (Path gave me the fifth). My board was Cunning Sparkmage and six lands (one was a Ravine), and his was 6/6 Knight,
Thoctar, and Linvala. I was at nine, so on his main phase, he played Sejiri Steppe from his hand, giving the 6/6 Knight pro red, and swung for
unblockable, lethal damage with the Knight and the Linvala. I cast the Cloudthresher I’d sided in. He couldn’t believe it. I killed the Knight
and fell to four. I then untapped and played Inferno Titan, which completed the comeback and gave me the victory (even if he had a Vengevine, I
would’ve won from this position with Thresher holding off his Linvala and Ravine ready to get it in).

Round 7, I faced 4-Color Control, and I lost a somewhat tight match in which Plumeveil and Shriekmaw proved to be good choices against me. Rounds 8 and
9, I played against R/G Valakut, a deck that I can rarely beat but didn’t expect to play against.

I finished 6-3, out of Day 2, and questioning whether I’d ever use MODO to prepare for another pro-level event.

The Take-Home: Should I Be Testing on MODO for Live Events?

This isn’t hypothetical. I have a really good setup to test with Nassif online for future events, or alternatively, do what I usually do and test
with people like Rietzl and Chapin IRL and through discussions over Facebook or email.  

I think in the future, I’ll use MODO but in a very different way. When I need to see if a deck is strong in an abstract sense (i.e. does it
present a fast clock? Is it consistent? Does it beat itself? Can it beat control? Can it beat Mono-Red? Etc.), I’ll use it on MODO to get a
general feel. When it comes time to decide whether it’s actually a good choice for the metagame, I’ll try hard to not be too biased by the MODO

Perhaps most importantly, I won’t use MODO as an excuse to not use the live-testing and mailing-list methods that I’ve used in the past.
Emailing Chapin can probably give me a better sense of the metagame than forty 8-mans on MODO, even if Chapin’s answer to the metagame is always
“play control.”

Recognize how you can gain from each of your friend’s vantage points, even if those vantage points are skewed. A criminally single-minded control
player like Wafo or Chapin has to have a firm grasp on the metagame, or they’d never win. A player who always plays aggro can tell you
which cards he fears the most. Everyone can enhance your understanding regardless of whether they’ve ever played the deck you’re working

If you find yourself playing in MODO PTQs and live PTQs, be aware of the differences. My most useful piece of advice is not to get discouraged or
depressed if you 0-2 that online PTQ or live PTQ. You might do well playing the same 75 in the other metagame. Also, having access to so many
PTQs lets you experiment a little, so when you think your favorite deck just isn’t in a good position in the online metagame, for example, maybe
try a very different strategy and capitalize on what you know about the metagame. Mono-Red has been losing a ton in live PTQs, perhaps? Okay, what are
the chances the field can beat Mono-Red and R/G Valakut? Try R/G Valakut.

Bonus Sections

Decimator Web

I wrote about

achieving the poison + damage + mill trifecta here


This card obviously helps those of us dreaming of trifectas. It’s funny just how much more powerful the milling part of the card is compared to
the damage or poison parts. Superficially, each part takes one-tenth of the opponent’s health away along each axis, but in Constructed, we
usually begin with a 53-card library and draw one or more cards on each of our turns, so sixty is far from the starting number. In Limited, we have far fewer than sixty cards to go through.

I would’ve made it 4, Tap: Target opponent loses two life, gets a poison counter, puts the top four cards of his or her library into his or her
graveyard, gets a warning for slow play, gains +5 cholesterol level, smokes one cigarette, and has to move to the Pacific Northwest.

Commander Fan Fiction

I was thinking the other day about what a game of 2v2 Commander (or four-way free-for-all with formed alliances) would look like in descriptive,
rather than game, form. I picked a few of my favorite Generals and wrote a very short story about how the generals might interact in one of those
games where the blue mages team up to avoid the incoming “F you guys” onslaught from the non-blue players:


She was pretty certain her attraction to the mage was real. She’d always known the difference between a magical enchantment, which temporarily
strips the enchanted of any thoughts or motivations inconsistent with raw desire, and genuine human attraction, which only has that effect in males.
Plus, if the attraction were artificial, it probably would’ve waned in the week between her last meeting with Teferi and this one. Even if he
wasn’t “romancing with both wands,” as the saying goes, she still felt under his control.

She was now sitting in the largest meeting room of her vast library, telling herself “he’s coming here to discuss business, focus on
that.” She pulled her chair in close, leaned over the table, and stared at the map sprawled out on top of it. Getting closer to the map
didn’t help her focus; she was now daydreaming about her hand touching Teferi’s as they both reach for the same location on the map. The
touching of their hands breaks the formality of the meeting, and they both nervously glance up. From this glance, he leans in to kiss her—

“Do you always look over the map with your eyes closed?”

She very quickly opened her eyes and instinctively dragged her silk robe back on top of her shoulder. How long had that doorway to the meeting room
contained a distinguished mage from Zhalfir?

“Teferi!” She hadn’t meant to sound so surprised to see him at precisely the time they had arranged to meet.

“Azami!” Teferi replied, wearing a smile that Azami had been imagining seconds earlier.

“I, uh, was just going over the map and thinking about where the next battle might take place. Come, sit down.” When he was seated, she
continued, “The other Generals… err, Commanders—

“—I imagine Teeg prefers ‘General’ and Kaysa prefers ‘Commander,’ but who knows. Go on, sorry.”

“…where was I?” Realizing that there was no way she could focus on battles and troops, Azami stood up, turned around, and sent
her lips right at Teferi’s. Teferi has the ability to teleport fast enough to avoid even an incoming arrow, but he didn’t budge.


As always, hit me up on Twitter with any feedback about any part of the article, @mtg_law_etc.