SCG Talent Search – From Russia with Love: Spies, Weapons, and SS-18

Thursday, January 27 – Magic is all about teamwork. Valeriy is here to tell you how to fine-tune your team into a lean, mean, grinding machine. Vote for him to see him make Top 4 of the Talent Search!

Hello! In my quest to become better at Magic and to share my experience with you, I want to talk about another important aspect of coming up with the
best decks: the people and the teamwork. I won’t, however, leave you without fresh ideas and tech, as usual, and I’ll drop a couple of lines about
Mirrodin Besieged, too. Just scroll down if that’s all you’re looking for (I know you are).


Magic is a game played by people. We just loooove to speak about cards, decks, techs, matchups, percentages, and yadda yadda, but let’s not forget
about the most important component of the game hands down: people. The players. The interlayer between cards and chair. One day, I was monitoring MTGO
Extended Dailies data, contemplating the rise of Naya. The first Dailies, two or three of them, had rather surprising figures — the deck was
clearly good, posting solid results despite the small representation. Soon after, the usual dilution began: the deck was recognized; the quantity of
Naya started to increase, and, unsurprisingly, the deck’s performance figures dropped from outstanding to merely average. Why? Because of people.

Those first few who started to play Naya were experienced and creative enough to solidly build/upgrade the deck and make it tournament-viable. Of those
who followed, many were too impatient, just copying the first list seen and hitting 8-mans or even PTQs. Mostly, they didn’t succeed… Why?
They didn’t work on their list; they didn’t put thought into it; they weren’t familiar with the deck. You can say, “I have no
time to work on every viable idea! Why not just grab the successful list?” and you’d be right. To a degree. A single person, young and
uncommitted, still doesn’t have the time to test everything he (or she) desires, and even if he has time to test a deck or two, he might not have time
to keep track of hot tech or to X-ray the web looking for fresh ideas. This is why you must have a team. A gang. An assortment of associates, if you

Role-playing games

The minimum possible size of the team is two, but I strongly don’t recommend this, especially if your testing partner is your girlfriend. A boyfriend
is better but still a bad idea. Three is acceptable, while four to six seems to be an ideal number. More than that — just not worth it. Making
your Magic team as big as a football one is rather bad, as all your secrets will eventually leak out, which isn’t acceptable. But remember that
“leaking secrets isn’t acceptable” doesn’t necessarily mean “don’t say anything Magic-related to anybody outside of the
team” (and thinking this way is a rather common, incurable illness). It’s normal to share some thoughts with outsiders; only real secrets need to
be hidden.

The key point of teamwork efficiency is the proper distribution of roles. The basic roles are:

1)   The Scout

2)   The Designer

3)   The Developer

4)   The Useless Guy

The Scout

He provides external data of all sorts possible. He brings in decklists, rumors, techs, article quotes, etc. Scouting is time-consuming but very
important work — just to avoid some traps. To quote a known pro, Lukas Jaklovsky: “The unlosable game was suddenly lost. Sad face, next
time I’ll at least look at some decklists.” Everybody and their brother knew about the Pestermite combo hidden in sideboards of Pyromancer
Ascension decks as a backup plan, but Lukas apparently did not. Scouting check failed.

So, just find a guy who eats information instead of lunch and, possibly, dinner too and looks like he could actually starve to death without the
Internet — well, congrats, he’s your perfect scout.

The Designer

If the Scout is the eyes and ears of your team, the Designer is its sleepless mind. He’s the one deciding which direction to explore and
research, and he’s the one overloading email inboxes with rough decklists for developers to polish. You need to tweak your Valakut deck sideboard
to adapt it to the local metagame? Task the designer. There’s a PTQ a week after the Prerelease, and everybody is completely clueless about what 75 to
sleeve? Designer’s your guy. Bring him some obscure rare from Shadowmoor to spur on his train of thought that all of you will ride to that blue
envelope paradise.

The Developer

He’s the person who works on the lists, proving your techs to be either useful or garbage. He usually spends more time playing MTGO than all the other
members combined. Note that his feedback to the Scout is as important as his feedback to the Designer, since the Developer is able to direct the
Scout’s efforts to find a proper tech or idea to fix something that needs to be fixed. He’s the person who turns the Designer’s “55
good cards and 5 free slots and 5 sideboarded cards” into a real tournament juggernaut.

The Useless Guy

What? The Useless Guy? Yes. Unless you and your friends are Wafo-Tapa, Matignon, and the Ruel brothers, there’s a plethora of reasons to supplement
your team with a guy who isn’t very useful during the testing process. He could be your driver for PTQ alcotrips or the host of your PTQ
alcoparties or… he could just be your friend! Remember, even if you are the truest Spike, it’s not forbidden to have friends and help
them in Magic.

P.S. “Sometimes, a wacky friend is what you need.” —Guillaume Matignon about Olivier Ruel

Roles are determined; assignment is done… But don’t forget, while the roles are important, it’s way more important for a person to be able
to combine different roles. For example, I’m a Scout (unsurprisingly) and Developer myself. And, without a doubt, everyone should have a grain of
Useless Guy inside — just proves you’re a human being, not just a personification of role.

While there are exceptions where you primarily want to work in a group in order to prepare for events, usually the team is more than just a group of
testing dummies; it’s your community, your gang of friends. I’ll try to bring life to the basic roles by using real people as examples.

Paranoid Data Miner

Analyst (as his real-life job suggests), hipster, and… paranoid. Profoundly believes that the best deck choice for the PTQ automatically
guarantees him a Pro Tour invitation. Made Nationals Top 8 with a homebrew deck well positioned against everyone except for his quarterfinals match.
Made roughly a million PTQ Top 8s after that but was unable to attend the Pro Tour after his only win. Oh, and brews perfect mojito.

Uncle Doran

Respected member of the local community, well-known trader. A happy father. The calmest member of the team. Prevents teammates from committing suicide
after going 0-2 drop by awarding them foil Ornithopters with witty, handwritten comments on them. Became Doran at his only PT, without losing
calmness and self-irony. Will win his next Pro Tour unless he actually forgets to go and play his matches, fascinated by glowing Japanese
foils at a trading post.

White Lion

He’s the real knight of the pen, and we all love to listen to him, especially when he starts discussing the techs or anything else with himself
(probably because we don’t want to speak and break his self-dialogue). He has the strongest moral values among us all and ensures that we do
nothing even remotely unethical. He has an affection for “pet cards” (Doran, Knight of the Reliquary, or the like), which is impermissible
for Spike (all of us are obviously Spikes), so he usually plays deck he likes over optimal choices.

The Duke (unofficially “Emo Pyromancer”)

Karmic brother of the Paranoid Data Miner but less paranoid and less of a data miner. Red mage. Dredge player.
I-changed-my-deck-five-minutes-before-the-tournament player. Has a tendency to shut others out and collapse but is nearly unstoppable on a good streak.
Hospitable host of our alcohol and PTQ parties.

Johnny Mnemonic

The-guy-who-remembers-completely-everything, including that marginal tech mentioned in Chapin’s article two years ago, which was rediscovered by
Paranoid Data Miner. Incidentally, the least experienced of the team and, frankly speaking, just a plain poor player from a technical standpoint. Never
won anything except for one GPT, has a reasonably sized collection of one-win-short fails on all levels — from FNM to PTQ to Grand Prix. The main
source of rumors and external data — just because he’s the most talkative and the nicest guy on the team.

All these people are a well-formed tool for team testing, drinking, and just gabbing about everything. My team.

Side note —

Thanks to my teammates for their friendship, for writing about me, and for their self-irony. And additional thanks to Paranoid Data Miner who will
never forgive me for my denying to enrich my article with his 300-word ode to himself. —

End of side note

You can see that there’s no pure Scout or pure Useless Guy among us. Each of us is able to fulfill different roles. For example, we all are
Scouts, to a degree, and our entire team is named “Sputnik.” For those of you who are not familiar with this word, here’s a little
Twitter conversation:

: to English-speaking followers: Do you actually know word “Sputnik”? Without Google etc.

: @amartology I just know it as the first satellite in orbit, not sure what the actual word means.

: @torerotutor It was everything I wanted to know. “Sputnik” means “Satellite” in Russian (alongside
with other meanings). Thank you)

: @amartology I’ll be your cultural guinea pig anytime. 🙂

: @amartology Traveler, or something similar?

: @jdbeety Actually it means “co-traveler” and “satellite” in Russian, and I think it would mean “The
Very First Soviet Satellite” in English

: @amartology We also use it as slang to represent sundry languages. “Hey assholes, stop speaking sputnik. English only.” Likely from Rounders.

By the way, this conversation taught me about the “Guinea Pig” idiom (we use ordinary rabbits here in Russia), so the morale of the story
is: I can gain new data from almost everything — just like a real reconnaissance satellite. And, speaking of reconnaissance, it’s time to
look at teamwork in this field.

Reconnaissance and espionage

Pretty often, proper deck choice is strongly metagame-dependent. When going to a big open tournament like a GP or SCG Open, it’s hard to guess
metagame precisely, but if you’re planning to attend a lesser tournament (“lesser” doesn’t mean “small”; it means
“relatively small” — most relevant for you European guys out there with 70-person PTQs), you can gather large amounts of useful data
before the tournament.

Last weekend, there was a Nagoya PTQ here in Moscow, and the week before that, we had a $1K Extended tournament. So, our team started to gather some
data a week or two before that. Firstly, I began monitoring local MTG-related web forums and keeping track of cards other people were asking to borrow.
Secondly, our Uncle Doran began to aggregate trading post data, informing us about cards people were asking to buy. Thirdly, other team members went on
to attend some local Extended tournaments and scout the decks already played in the local club. I aggregated all this data. Before arriving at our $1K
Open, we already knew the deck choices of 45 players out of the 62 who attended.

This little story shows how different roles serve a common goal: metagame prediction. Obviously, there were mistakes — a couple of people had
changed the deck at the last moment and so on — still, that day I knew what all my six opponents were playing before we even sat down to face
each other. And mulligan decisions based on that knowledge won me at least one game. Not to mention it allowed me to make some decklist changes using
proper metagame prediction (like playing Kitchen Finks maindeck in my Bant Haterator among the sea of Jund decks).

Hey, dudes in Moscow! Big Brother is actually watching you! Every word you say will be used against you! But, to be serious, unless our Paranoid Data
Miner sticks around with a gun pointed at my head, I’ll gladly exchange your data for my data, and I’ll never fail to listen to
good advice.

Pretty puppies and double-edged swords

The best, most common deck-related advice I’ve ever heard and repeated is “just don’t play this deck.” Just that simple.
Reasons? Varies. Sometimes people just toy with stillborn ideas. Sometimes they try to play the top deck of the previous week, not realizing it’s
already very poorly positioned in the current metagame. Sometimes they stubbornly stick to the deck that doesn’t fit their play style.

You often hear phrases like “all Japanese pros came with [insert deck name here],” but not all of us are good enough to play any deck. The
solution? Pay more attention to your own preferences. By the way, I can’t remember any single tournament where I and my teammates sleeved up
three copies of the same deck.

Yet this is a double-edged sword. Props: easier testing (we always have a good gauntlet), more adequate results of testing (have you ever noticed that
people usually play worse when piloting “just a gauntlet deck?”). Cons: larger amount of co-work (because we need to create three of four times
more tech) and the danger of pet decks (usually leading its pilot into dead alleys).

Playing pet decks is obviously bad. But you should separate “the pet deck” from “one of the many good choices.” It’s a rare
situation when there’s just one optimal, unquestioned deck choice for the tournament (like GP Columbus ’07 aka GP FlashHulk, which led to Flash being
banned soon afterwards), so if you have a choice, you should definitely play the deck that can exploit your strong traits. No, I didn’t say
“the deck you like”; I said “the deck that can exploit your strong traits.”

Let me share with you the conversation I had with my friend Andrey Kochurov, former Russian National Champion, after a pint or more of wonderful
Belgian beer and an unsuccessful PTQ:

Me: I have no idea what deck to pick up for the next PTQ. I like my current Bant deck, but I failed to win, and I see that I probably won’t win the
next event with it either.

Him: Is there a combo in the format? Valakut? Wonderful! You can do strong math, but you’re somehow weak when it comes to delicate and complex in-game
decisions. Bant is good, but it forces you to face such decisions too often. Just pick Valakut, do the math, and try to combo them out as fast as
possible — it’s that which you can do very well.

It was twelve hours before two Valakut decks played in the finals of Grand Prix Atlanta.

I promised myself not to write about this land again, but now it’s the prime time to do so and to discuss some interesting deckbuilding
decisions. You can find decklists for the

Atlanta Top 8 here

. I’m going to talk about Christian Valenti deck.

The first thing to note is the comeback of Lightning Bolt. Volcanic Fallout is still good, but sometimes you need to deal with Fauna Shaman or Lotus
Cobra immediately and, if possible, without a huge tempo loss (because the only way to win against Emrakul or a bunch of Vengevines is to combo out as
fast as possible). While newcomer Slagstorm will definitely be the most common removal in Valakut in Standard, I expect Lightning Bolt and Volcanic
Fallout to stay solid choices for Extended. But Slagstorm will definitely be a solid replacement for the Firespout in the sideboard — mainly
because of its ability to hit players after eighteen combo damage.

The second point of interest is Avenger of Zendikar replacing the fourth Scapeshift. Avenger deals with Leyline of Sanctity, and he can be fetched by
Primal Command.

Before the huge metagame change that made Faeries just another good deck, I tried the R/G Valakut deck, ported from Standard with minimum changes. I
played zero Scapeshifts, three Avengers of Zendikar, and four Summoning Traps. I played Overgrown Battlement and Farhaven Elf instead of Explore and
Harrow. While countering Harrow is the meanest thing Faeries or Control can do to you, carelessly countering Farhaven Elf normally leads into Summoning
Trap and teaches them to be extra cautious in game 2. In a Jund- and Naya-filled metagame, Summoning Trap is worse than Scapeshift — just because
Avenger is slower — but who knows how the metagame will shift? So, keep Summoning Trap in mind, while I return to our singleton Avenger. 

Sweet bonus is that Avenger is so good with another super-secret-super-techy animal hiding in the sideboard — Spellbreaker Behemoth. By the way,
this ancient monster is just larger than Vengevine for the same cost; he deals with Mistbind Clique, and he can’t be killed by any Faeries
removal except for the rarely played Doom Blade. With a little help from four Guttural Responses and four Obstinate Baloths, the deck becomes well
positioned against Faeries, Jund, and Naya at the same time. The only truly bad matchup is G/W Trap, which is so unstable that it can lose to itself as
often as it loses to you, so I’d definitely recommend you play this deck if you have a PTQ this weekend and aren’t afraid of Emrakul. By the way,
Emrakul is able to kill you not just with annihilator and a 15/15 body. There are more ways…

Emrakul, Besieged and more

Imagine the situation: one sunny, winter day, Data Miner plays an Extended 8-man queue and gets crushed by… Cragganwick Cremator. Yes, I didn’t
know such a card even existed before he told me. Data Miner’s reaction? Post “OMFG! CREMATOR!” to the mailing list and make a
long-term investment by buying fifty copies of it on MTGO. Sure, one day, this deck will be as powerful as Faeries and Jund combined, and he’ll
be a millionaire. He’ll literally swim in gold coins, like Scrooge McDuck. Fast forward to two hours later, he sees the price of Cremators rising
by a half-cent and sells them back, as other team members make sure he understands the utter hopelessness of this deck.

Recently, I’ve read at least two articles named “A bunch of crazy Extended brews” and want to note that both authors missed important
pieces of craziness. Are you still with me? That Cragganwick Cremator deck contained Emrakul (cool to discard), Demigod of Revenge (cool to discard,
too, despite the nonbo with the Eldrazi), and a bunch of burn spells supporting the Spinerock Knoll to cast Emrakul. Big Fat Guys and burn in one
package! Whoa! The sweetest Timmy Christmas deal ever.

And, oh, about Mirrodin Besieged and more. The more is another “hit and win” creature spoiled in Mirrodin Besieged — Blightteel
Colossus. I think he looks like a SS-18 “Satan” ballistic missile. I won’t speak about him being awesome or abominable — it’s
all about personal preferences. The thing is I wanted him not just to look as powerful as a ballistic missile but to be as powerful. And I
think he could be broken, given the right circumstances.

I don’t know if turn-4 Colossus will be as devastating as turn-4 Emrakul (who may be the Death Star?), but it’s tempting to try. There was
an attempt to pair Shape Anew with Trinket Mages and Stoneforge Mystics fetching singleton Darksteel Axe, but there were some glaring problems
(countered Axe = lose), and, more importantly, there was no worthy target to Shape Anew into. Honestly, are we trying to build a sophisticated combo
deck just to win with Wurmcoil Engine? Just cast it, dude!

Everything changed when Mirrodin Besieged granted us the most powerful target for Shape Anew so far, as well as a pair of wonderful support cards:
Master’s Call and Inkmoth Nexus.

By the way, Master’s Call seems to be one of the most interesting cards in Mirrodin Besieged, at least for me. Primarily because I have a
collection of foil Myrs (brought home from my GP trips); secondarily because this card fits very well into two different and potentially powerful combo
decks: Extended Polymorph and Standard Shape Anew. This card allows us to save our “Polymorph fodder” from sorcery-speed removal, all the
while helping us to combat Consuming Vapors and keep The Big Daddy alive.

Despite being indestructible, Blightsteel Colossus still has a wide array of cards that can deal with it, which is important due to his summoning
sickness. The only instant threat to avoid is Into the Roil, and the sorcery ones are Revoke Existence, Journey to Nowhere, the freshly printed Leonin
Relic-Warder (hello, kitty! See you populating sideboards soon), good old Jace, the Mind Sculptor, and forgotten goodies like Oust (Brian
Kibler’s favorite). But luckily, we have a free Voidslime for everything threating our giant pet.

Not of This World

We’re allowed to tap out to win counter wars for the Shape Anew. We’re allowed to cast Shape Anew on turn 4. We’re allowed to corrupt the entire world
with glistening oil. And don’t forget that you’re allowed to cast Day of Judgment before attacking. So, here’s the very first draft of the deck.
It’s very rough, obviously, but the idea is there:


4 Not of This World

3 Baneslayer Angel

8 more good cards

Will this deck be viable? We’ll see. At least, unlike aggro (sorry, Plated Geopede, I’ll miss you), this deck won’t instantly burn in hell
after Slagstorm replaces Pyroclasm in Valakut (malevolent grin).

Good luck to you and your friends at tournaments you’ll try to win with the help of teamwork!

Valeriy Shunkov

in Twitter

amarto in MTGO