Sullivan Library – Hollywood, Curves, and Rogue Decklists

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Friday, May 23rd – As you’re reading this, Adrian Sullivan is slinging spells at Pro Tour: Hollywood… and hopefully tight play and excellent deck choice will see him still slinging spells on Sunday. Today’s Sullivan Library looks at his testing philosophy, examines the nature of a technology curve, and presents an interesting rogue deck that is both fun and powerful…

This is an article about a lot of things. I started writing this article in my head a while ago, but, physically, I’m writing it in an airport, after feeling violated by TSA. One thing about the security these days in airports, they sure are curious about a tightly bound bunch of booster packs. If you’re bringing enough of them, you’re sure to get pulled on over and asked what the hell you think you’re doing. But, alas.

It’s been a long time since I’ve been to LA. The last time I was there, it was for my second or third Pro-Tour there. It’s been awhile. I still miss the Queen Mary, even though it is in Long Beach, an absurdly annoying place to hold a tourney. There is something about the majesty of that big boat. Looking down several floors, from level to level, at all of the action going on. It really is quiet exhilarating. I still remember playing in a side event at my first Pro-Tour, after the inimitable Lan D. Ho knocked me out of contention just as the beautiful Claudia Loroff was knocking Mark Justice out of contention. I was disappointed, but confident in my deck, and I cruised to the top of a large cash prize tourney, losing in the finals to Olle Rade, back when he still had long hair. I felt somewhat vindicated, but still, no matter how many good side events you may have, the Big Show is the only one that people notice. People did notice my Cabal Rogue collaborator, Andy Wolf, in the Top 8, with a fast Black Beatdown deck. And people certainly noticed America’s PTQ hero, Dave Price, smashing everyone’s face with what was probably the best version of Sligh in the room. At Philly, I am still pretty sure that I had the best Block deck in the room, only I couldn’t get anyone to play it. Did I? It really doesn’t matter anymore; the Big Show happened, and that was what most people will remember of Kamigawa Block.

In a lot of ways, this is going to be a bittersweet event for me. I qualified with Miser Rock, and I’m pretty sure that it was a completely unfair deck for the late metagame. That deck was a labor of love, and I slowly tweaked and turned it until I had gotten to a final list that felt as though every single card in the main deck was completely correct (Yes, even the 2 Putrefy, 1 Terminate, 1 Profane Command part). I was a bit concerned when I saw exactly when the Pro Tour in Hollywood was taking place; my finals were right around the same time, and my summer classes would be starting literally the day after I would get back. It was going to be a real tight spot.

It got even worse at the end of the semester. I was really having my ass handed to me by school. There were a lot of projects that I had coming due, and the Pro Tour was swinging around with such imminence that I couldn’t believe my bad luck. With almost no playtesting in, I had almost 60 pages of writing to turn in, a final to study for (I’m happy to share with you that I totally bombed it… boo), and a Pro Tour to prepare for. I knew that I had to focus a lot of my attention on school, but at the same time, it was hard being behind. I had some ideas that I wanted to determine whether or not they had merit, but I was rapidly getting to a point where I simply wouldn’t have enough time to find out.

This kind of brings about the concept of playtesting for measurement or discovery problem. I was working with GerryT’s group. Cabal Rogue is still around, but it is a collection of largely retired folks. Shuler sends out the e-mails from time to time, making fun of any of us who deign to write about Magic. Malka has sold all of his cards. Wakefield was a blip there for a quick second, but has since re-disappeared somewhere in Europe. Dempsey still plays occasionally, but he has these children now that seem to be a higher priority to him for some reason. Of all of them, Macey, Priest, the long since seen Neville, Wolf, and Ped Bun, only Brian Kowal and I still play semi-regularly. And so, on Kowal’s urging, I joined GerryT’s group, and found myself in a land of measurement.

Still trying to find a rogue deck that might be decent, I tossed a bunch of stuff against one of my more regular online playtest partner’s from Gerry’s kids, Owen Turtenwald. He generally smashed everything that I sent his way, pretty much with whatever he had in his hands. “You’re wasting my time,” he said, all measurement.

The thing he didn’t seem to be getting was the role of varied roles within a playtest group. You can’t simply have everyone trying to figure out how one deck does against another. You have to have people attempting to push the envelope. You keep throwing stuff up against the metagame, hoping that something will stick. Deck after deck after deck gets knocked down, sure, but sometimes you find something out that can be invaluable. Most things won’t, and maybe you won’t find anything, but it is still incredibly valuable on the off-chance that you do discover something unexpected.

It’s a lot like this thing that some of you may be aware of. A drug company was developing a pulmonary arterial hypertension drug, but along the way they discovered that it had some side effects. Maybe some people use that drug, sildenafil citrate, for heart problems… but I bet you are all more familiar with that drugs common name, Viagra — a drug that only exists because people were trying to do something much different. (Thanks to [email protected] DeGraff for reminding me of this story.)

And that’s the way that it can go, sometimes.

It reminds me a lot of our preparations for Pro-Tour Rebels. Cabal Rogue, Madison, and Milwaukee, altogether, had a lot of people qualified for the Pro Tour. Even better, these were a ton of people that were largely incredibly excited about the event. And they lived near each other. This was some good.

And so, we threw ourselves at the format. We had perhaps four or five people who just kept gunning at Rebels, almost exclusively, sharing their tech amongst each other, and honing and honing and honing, measuring away. Perhaps three people were working on Rising Waters, doing much the same thing. They played against each other, and they played against all of the other stuff we kept throwing at the decks.

There were Mono-Red decks, of course. There were Mono-Black control decks. These kept showing promise, to the point that several people started working on these as well. A couple of mercenary decks were thrown around. And there was our seemingly promising Cowardice deck, that a few of us kept plugging away at.

And plug and plug and plug we did. At a certain point, we had our Cowardice deck at a point that it was dominating many of the Rebel decks. This curious thing started happening, though. The Cowardice deck started to lose.

It’s actually a pretty common occurrence with truly potent decks. You can have a deck that beats them, at least initially, but as the pilot of the deck becomes more competent, or as the deck itself becomes more finely honed, the matchup will just begin to slip away from you. The raw power of the deck is just too much to be denied by a deck that doesn’t either have a more focused means of beating a deck or isn’t impressively raw powerful on its own merit as well. This is the reason why, say during the ascendance of Affinity, despite so many people thinking that they beat Affinity, few actually did.

Eventually, we scrapped our Cowardice deck. It was cool, but it had gotten to the point that nearly all of our Rebel decks beat it, and they weren’t even trying. They were trying to beat other Rebel decks, and it just so happened that they were able to employ some incidental hate on Cowardice (Defender en-Vec).

Around this time, we were also working on the deck that would be the flagship of our tournament: the Roshambo deck. In many ways, this is a lot like the Viagra story. Mike Hron, then a young Madison player with promise, had made a deck for playtesting. It had a bunch of garbage in it. Saber Ants and Spidersilk Armor are the two that most immediately come to mind. But the deck also had Massacre and Natural Affinity. The deck didn’t perform, but it occasionally pulled off this trick where it would destroy every permanent in play on the opponent’s side, while keeping all of its own lands. And all for only three mana against a Rebel-playing opponent.

I immediately started going to town with the deck, focusing nearly all of my energy on it. Eventually, between me and the rest of Cabal, we’d managed to hone the deck to a point where it was a powerhouse in its own right. Mike Hron* would take this list all the way to the brink of Top 8 of that Pro Tour, but tie-breakers would ever so barely keep him out of it. Here is that deck:

4 Divining Witch
4 Thrashing Wumpus
2 Ascendant Evincar
4 Massacre
3 Forced March
2 Extortion
4 Death Pit Offering
4 Saproling Burst
3 Natural Affinity
3 Horn of Ramos
2 Skull of Ramos
7 Forest
4 Rishadan Port
15 Swamp

The deck was powerful by itself such that it didn’t need another opponent to be a Rebel deck for it to win. It would perform quite admirably against any opponent, but was especially ready to smack Rebels to bits. Of course, in making the rounds of testing, we had determined that it lost quite badly to Cowardice. Thankfully, we determined, this wouldn’t be a factor. Anyone that worked on such a deck, we felt, would come to the conclusion that we had: it couldn’t beat Rebels (the de facto best deck of the format), and playing such a deck would be suicide. No one would do that.

Of course, a few rounds into the tournament, I do play a Cowardice deck. I lose badly. And the next round, I play against another Cowardice deck, and lose again.

It doesn’t matter that the deck was a poor choice for the environment. They hadn’t figured that out, and so they came to the tournament with their deck, sure that they would beat Rebels with it.

Here is what is going on. Each player and each playtest group or team comes to the table with whatever knowledge of the environment that they have. For some people, this will mean that they will have an exceedingly good grasp of how the event will work. You can look at, for example, the Sliver Kids, and see how this works in Limited. They knew the Sliver archetype(s). They knew them so well, in fact, that they could perform numerous versions of the archetype(s), and switch between them as time passed. Other groups might have been aware of the power of Slivers, but they had a different impression of just how powerful it was, largely because they were farther back in the tech curve on it. Still other groups had no idea that the archetype was even any good. When people scoff at the achievement of Chris Lachmann and the charming Jacob Van Lunen, it always says to me that such people don’t really understand how much more knowledgeable those guys were of the format than, seemingly, everyone else in the room.

In Constructed, people’s existence on different locations on the tech curve comes into play in a number of ways. Take Faeries. There are probably some exemplary builds of Faeries that are simply superior to the builds that we saw at the StarCityGames $5,000 Open, at least based on the development of the metagame. Some people, ahead of the curve, will have decks that will easily outperform a player expecting to beat Faeries with their deck, honed to beat, say those decks from the StarCityGames weekend (which is probably where the curve is at). Other people will show up, even behind the curve, convinced by some factor that their sub-standard Faerie list is better.

Sometimes this is the result of failure to develop a deck to a certain level. I look, for example, at Evan Erwin fantastic finish with the Red Deck at that weekend, and I see it preying upon decks that aren’t prepared for it. Its very existence, though, raises the bar, on some levels, despite certain flaws I think of as inherent to its build.

Tournament Magic, as much as we might like to fool ourselves into thinking of as Rock, Paper, Scissors, is not a game of Rock, Paper, Scissors. Aside from the fact that Rock beats Scissors 100% of the time (and it can be hard to find matchups between real decks that ever get that kind of numbers), there is also the fact of varying design levels. At Pro Tour: Valencia, I knew, for example, that my Miser Rock deck performed very well against most versions of Dredge, unless they went down a very particular path. After beating one Frenchman, angry at his loss to my Rock deck (“I never lose to that deck”), he proclaimed I was foolish for having played my deck, and that I had gotten lucky. Really, his playtesting hadn’t been against a deck that was as far down the tech curve as my own, and he didn’t realize that he was the dog in this matchup. If, on the other hand, I am wrong about how good my deck was in the matchup, in actuality, I was reprising the role of that Cowardice player from my earlier Pro Tour experience, not having prepared enough against an expected deck, and falsely confident but ultimately doomed in the face of real resistance. My experience at the PT and my subsequent experiences at PTQs with this deck versus dredge lead me to believe that I was in the first position, and not the Cowardice position, but I could be wrong…

Take this deck that I had prepared early on for this Pro Tour as an experiment.

Green Machine, redux

4 Llanowar Elves
3 Boreal Druid
4 Kitchen Finks
4 Ohran Viper
2 Razormane Masticore
1 Vigor

2 Weatherseed Totem
4 Hunting Wilds
4 Mwonvuli Acid-Moss
4 Harmonize
2 Primal Command
1 Gaea’s Blessing
3 Loxodon Warhammer

3 Treetop Village
3 Mouth of Ronom
14 Snow-Covered Forest
1 Pendelhaven
1 Sapseep Forest

In playing against some early versions of Faeries that had been developed by the playtest group I was working with, and in playing against random versions that I could find here or there, I was playing with what looked to be a 50/50 or a slight edge. I knew the deck wasn’t completely honed yet, and so results like this were very exciting.

But, as I got further and further into the testing, I would sit down against Owen, and he would just absolutely smash me with Faeries. Why? It could be that he was lucky, but I doubt it. In reality, he was playing a more updated list of Faeries, and was farther ahead in the tech curve, and plus, he was playing the deck solidly. So, yes, he did absolutely smash me. “Surprise, surprise,” I can hear some people saying.

The thing is, despite Owen not viewing this as valuable testing, it absolutely is valuable. I didn’t find something that stuck with this try, but I was also learning some valuable thing that impacted how I might build the next deck that I’d be throwing at the format, and the next, and the next. If I hadn’t had this experience, I might have thought that the deck was performing where it actually was not. True, the Faerie deck wasn’t improved by this particular playtest session, but as far as playtesting for discovery, a lot of work was done. You need this kind of work to find a powerful, new deck like Roshambo.

There is nothing, in and of itself, wrong with playing a deck that exists deep in the mainstream. But there is something powerful about showing up at the tournament with a deck that is completely outside the realm of thinking of your opponents, or at least outperforms their expectations of what was possible. When you’re on the right side of being a rogue deck, it leads to wins. This is something that doesn’t happen as often in more mainstream matchups.

At the Affinity Pro Tour (you know, Kobe), I played Affinity, and I think that my deck had a very slight edge in the mirror in the first game, but if it didn’t, it was still incredibly close to 50/50. But my board… well, that was a complete mess. I looked under rocks to find cards to win the mirror, and I didn’t realize that what I’d come up with was a dirty hand full of worms. I’m pretty sure I went from a 55/45 game 1, to something like a 30/70 game 2. If true, these rough guesses put me at just over 30/70 for the match. Ouch.

At this Pro Tour, it seems clear that the big “Affinity” or “Rebels” of the event will be Faeries, even if, as most people I know predict, it won’t be so ubiquitous. But, while I’m sure there are ways to gain edges, I’m pretty confident that I won’t be able to find that edge that will be so good that it will take me much out of 55/45 land (and 55/45, if repeated in game 2/3 makes for a 57% matchup, “woo!”). Add to the fact that I know that my actual play skills probably give me a net negative on most matchups against the truly good players, and I know that I can’t sleeve up any version of this deck.

One of my biggest regrets of the preparation for Hollywood is almost certainly that I didn’t develop further the rogue deck that I thought could have had what it took. Sometimes you just have that feeling. I had started work on a number of decks because of the existence of Vexing Shusher. As many of you may know, I’m kinda high on this card. And, I think, with good reason. An unmolested Shusher will let any spell you want resolve. With this in mind, I poured through card lists for potentially potent cards to see just what kind of madness that you could make with a Shusher protecting it. Eventually I found it: Warp World.

Wow. Warp World. I had a Ravnica Block Constructed deck that would use Warp World, and it was almost good enough to be a contender. It was exciting to try to make a Standard deck that could fit the bill.

Armed with some playtest partners, I threw an earlier version of the list against Faeries, both the most up-to-date lists of the time (you would see them played to the Top 8 of the $2000 Open by Gerry Thompson) and a more old-school version like Yuuta Takahashi took to GP victory. To my surprise, the untuned Warp World deck went over 65%. Many of the games, though, were decided not by Warp World, but simply by beating down. Playing against Owen Turtenwald Elf deck was more depressing. Many of the games were close, but the matchup really looked like about a 10% one.

Still, though, I could sense the potential in the deck, and unfortunately, I could feel the clock ticking. There just wasn’t enough time to make the deck be honed to the appropriate level it would need to be to actually be a contender at the Pro Tour. As it was, I could sense that the deck had potential, but that is not enough. It might be that I could spend the effort, and it would need tons of it, only to discover that it wasn’t good enough. I expended my effort elsewhere.

Still, though, it was an exciting deck. After I had solidified my actual deck for the Pro Tour, I took all of the lessons I had learned from all of the decks I had worked on, and put them together into one deck… a fun Rogue Warp World deck, to be sure, but also a deck that had a big edge on Faeries and Evan Erwin Red deck. I won’t be playing this one at the Pro Tour, but I do think that it is exciting, and very damned competitive.

The initial list had Wall of Roots and Elsewhere Flask in it, but I moved those aside after the lesson I had from my Green Machine deck. The two Fungal Reaches might be better served as some other land, perhaps a Forest and something else, but they do seem valuable in theory (though where they are better or worse than a basic land, I’m unsure). Sometimes Faeries could just lose to Kitchen Finks on the beatdown, or anything on the beats, for that matter. I shifted my curve downwards, and made it so that the deck could beat down.

Interestingly, this deck uses Magus of the Moon, not just as disruption, but also as mana-fixing. The Avalanche Riders help support this plan, and further help make the Magus effective. The mana acceleration is set up to provide a maximum of stability, with an eye on beatdown, but the Dryad slot gets split between the Yavimaya Dryad itself, and a Farhaven Elf to fix towards a Mountain, and Grinning Ignus, for just a big boost into the more expensive spells.

For those of you who have never seen a Warp World resolve, it is truly something to behold. Often, what will happen is that your opponent will go down to a smattering of permanents far less than they had before (usually the equivalent of a Pox), and often find themselves stranded with an incredibly poor selection of lands and other permanents. You, on the other hand, will pull into nearly all permanents, many of which will grant you more permanents, with Admirers pulling you into more cards, Riders smacking down the land of the already depleted opponent, and the occasional Siege-Gang really making things rough. Even more incredibly, you often find yourself drawn into enough mana to potentially cast a second Warp World, and chain into even more problems for your opponent. Two Warp Worlds can take you and an opponent, say at 10 permanents each, into you with 18 or 20, and them with a paltry 4 or 5.

Even if you don’t tutor up a Shusher to help defend the combo against counters, the steady supply of pressure that the deck can put out can often drain the opponent of counters, prepping the Warp World, or a very early Magus of the Moon can act as a virtual Shusher (meaning that you are playing 4 of them, in essence). But perhaps most importantly, the deck functions quite well without Warp World; the Warp World just serves as either an important “oh, crap” button, or as a lights out.

I don’t know that this deck would have ended up good enough to play at the Pro Tour if I’d had more time to work on it. What I do know is that it is incredibly fun, and also very powerful. I hope that you really enjoy it.

By the time you are reading this, it’s quite likely that I’ll be playing in the main event with the deck that I ended up selecting in the end. I think it is quite good, but it certainly isn’t as exciting as this one. Wish me luck! I’ll be out there, duking it out, but I’ll also be carrying my Warp World deck on me, if anyone wants to try their luck in some pick-up games.

With excitement and hope…

Adrian Sullivan

* After Hollywood, Mike Hron finally moves away from the great bastion of light that is Madison, Wisconsin to a shining island in the Caribbean. I know that we’ll all miss him. It’s been great having you in town, Mike. Have fun out there…