Sullivan Library – Reflections from PTQ Indianapolis

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Tuesday, June 23rd – Adrian Sullivan is in a reflective mood. With the Standard PTQ season continuing apace, coupled with the StarCityGames.com $5000 Standard Open series, it seems that preparation is the key to ultimate success. Adrian contemplates the nature of preparation, and shares a few ideas to help us reach that ephemeral next level…

Brian Kowal made fun of me the other day. “You have more computer problems than anyone I know.”

In my head I emoted a little sigh, and tried to explain how they weren’t so bad. I’ve had a Gateway machine that I was very happy with, but I dropped it really hard on concrete while it was turned on, and then it wasn’t so happy with me. I got it back, but I definitely had to deal with something that wasn’t as pleasant: Gateway was bought by Acer, and their customer service and repairs people have been problematic; they sent me my computer back, but the monitor wobbled. I dealt with it for as long as I could before sending it back. Overall, I’ve been happy with my computer a great deal, but I know that I’m also looking forward to the day that I get my next one.

It’s on days like today, though, where I’m using a borrowed computer, that I miss it. There’s just something about the feel of my computer. It’s not just that it’s mine, either. It’s that I’m so intimately familiar with it. I know what it is that I’m going to be doing with it, what it is good at, what it isn’t so good at.

I thought about this as my car came back from the PTQ this weekend in Indy. I had put together a brewed Jund-Cascade deck, and my friend Ben Rasmussen played (essentially) the MJ list of Five-Color Cascade. John Stolzman and Cedric Phillips played Black/White Tokens and Kithkin, respectively. They made Top 8. We, well, we did not.

Ben and I were definitely two of the best players in the room. Yet we were knocked out early. A big part of the reason was clear the night before, in our hotel room. I was knocking around Stolzman’s deck a bit, but still refining the card choices and trying to figure out what spells I wanted in the deck.

“This is not the process I imagined you would use,” Stolzman said.

“That’s because it’s not,” laughed Rasmussen.

Usually, I like to go to an event with a deck that has been honed and vetted. I’ve gone through it and I know it inside and out. I know exactly what it is that makes the deck click and why I want exactly the number that I have. I’m reminded of a tournament in Columbus, where someone who didn’t know me was making fun of my deck after I beat him. Cedric laughed back at the guy and called out to me: “Hey, Adrian, how long have you been working on the deck?”

“This exact list? Two months? But the current inception of it? Maybe a year and a half… and it is based on my deck from 10 years ago.”

That’s how I like to have my decks set up. I like them to be like the Elves list I gave people for Regionals and U.S. Nationals last year: every card is settled. Even if there are better answers or cards that might be determined in retrospect, every single card is thought out and ready to go for the event.

This is a shockingly potent and cyclical format. If you check out Sean McKeown incredibly dense and analysis-filled article, you can get a sense of what I mean. I have a couple minor quibbles with it (and I’m sure one of my quibbles was a pointed choice by him), but overall, it’s a great capturing of what this format seems to look like: a metric crapton of great decks, all of which can be positioned to win the whole shebang.

Cedric and John’s choices were not just exemplary decks. They were also decks that they knew so deeply inside and out that they could be expected to make the right play against pretty much any opponent. As Cedric put it in the car, “I’ve played the deck so much for so long that I’ve pretty much been in every conceivable situation for the deck to be in.”

We don’t necessarily have the ability to get to that point with every deck that we might want to play. Looking at McKeown’s article, I keep coming back to the conclusion that this is a format that it almost makes sense to show up with three decks, and then choose the best choice for whatever metagame is presenting itself. It doesn’t feel good, for example, to be playing Kithkin when your good opponents are likely to be playing Reveillark. In fact, that situation almost brings up a kind of stomach churning awfulness. Path and Sower and Wrath and Reveillark and maybe even more than that… it doesn’t make you want to be the White Weenie deck, that’s for sure. In the room free of Faeries and Elves (ha!), if you’re piloting Turbo Fog, you’re going to feel pretty good about life. It’s not so likely that that is going to be the case, but, hey, we can dream. (I know that I played Turbo Fog in Regionals because I was pretty comfortable that there wouldn’t be much in the way of Faeries, and Maelstrom Pulse wouldn’t be too scary… yet.)

The danger of branching out into a new deck isn’t merely that it hasn’t been vetted yet; it is also that you might have the details wrong.

It can be simple: perhaps a spell is wrong. You might decide that you want to add in a great new card to Elves, and you put it in and it works out fine. But because you haven’t gone through and truly played it out, you miss the fact that it is completely terrible when you play against the mirror or anything Red-based.

Sometimes it can be insidious: perhaps the mana is wrong.

Take this early list for my Jund-Cascade deck (observant individuals will note just how much this list shares with Michael Jacob Five-Color Blood deck, just without the extra colors):

4 Putrid Leech
4 Boggart Ram-Gang
4 Bloodbraid Elf
3 Sygg, River Cutthroat
4 Maelstrom Pulse
4 Anathemancer
3 Bituminous Blast
2 Jund Charm
2 Volcanic Fallout
4 Jund Hackblade

4 Savage Lands
4 Treetop Village
4 Twilight Mire
2 Fire-Lit Thicket
2 Graven Cairns
2 Sulfurous Springs
2 Karplusan Forest
2 Llanowar Wastes
1 Reflecting Pool
1 Forest
1 Swamp
1 Mountain

The mana was all wrong. I didn’t actually realize it initially. I spent a long time working on the fight against more controlling decks. It was a little rough, to be sure. But it didn’t seem that bad.

Then I fought against my first opposing Bloodbraid Elf.

Suddenly, I found myself in the position of being punished for taking the amount of pain that the pain lands were giving me. I had changed the deck from a Vivid base hoping to be able to make the deck take advantage of more aggressive starts with Jund Hackblade and friends. Unfortunately, the mana itself was my enemy, helping my opponent kill me far too easily.

Mana is a sneaky thing. Take this list, my Elves list from the last StarCityGames.com $5000 Standard Open in Indy:

4 Llanowar Elves
4 Wolf-Skull Shaman
4 Wren’s Run Vanquisher
4 Wilt-Leaf Liege
3 Cloudthresher
1 Loxodon Warhammer
4 Thoughtseize
4 Profane Command
4 Eyeblight’s Ending
1 Nameless Inversion

3 Mutavault
4 Treetop Village
4 Llanowar Wastes
4 Gilt-Leaf Palace
4 Forest
2 Swamp
2 Twillight Mire

I had worked pretty hard on this list, and was fairly happy with it. I was knocked out of contention by Combo-Elves and by Mono-Red. When the new cards became available, a part of the question that came to my mind was whether or not to include Putrid Leech. The obvious card it would “overwrite” might be Wolf-Skull Shaman.

I tested it thoroughly. The cutting of Wolf-Skull Shaman seemed too costly. Even a Safehold Elite seemed better than Putrid Leech.

Well, of course it seemed better. I hadn’t altered the mana to help support the Leech. I hadn’t changed the other spells in the deck to make the Gilt-Leaf Palaces and the Wren’s Run Vanquishers still maintain their core strength. I made a conclusion that was based entirely on not fully exploring what it meant to make the change, and then making the change.

Not every list that makes the Top 8 of a PTQ is going to be a great list. There is evidence, however, that they have something going on. There can be a lot of incentive to make adjustments without fully thinking through the ramifications. Perhaps you see the lists with Briarhorn, for example, and think to yourself: “that can’t possibly be right, let’s take it out.”

A lot of the time, you’ll be correct in imagining that the more conservative choice is correct. But sometimes, you won’t be. Or, sometimes, your change will upset the balance of what the deck is trying to do.

Let’s look at a very potent deck, once again, the Michael Jacob list from Grand Prix: Seattle:

There has to be something about this decklist. It was in the hands of a strong player, certainly, but it still has its own innate strengths.

One of the first changes I’ve seen made to this list is simple: drop the Cruel Ultimatum, and in Faerie-light metas, change the Fallouts into Jund Charms.

I’m all for this change, but it does have some immediate ramifications. It does mean that you can, perhaps, make some slight changes to how your mana is laid out. Literally every land in the deck can contribute to a Cruel Ultimatum (unless you are playing against mono-White Kithkin and have an Exotic Orchard out), so, maybe a slightly different configuration could be possible if you aren’t trying to cast it? Literally the only spell that definitely can use RR is now Boggart Ram-Gang. Those Cascade Bluffs might be less valuable now, even if you are still trying to cast Cryptic Command. Maybe the Vivid Crags are less valuable too.

It takes time, but your deck probably needs a slight revamp, just to take in the reality of changes.

Change can be good. Right now, for example, I have a “short” list of cards from 10th Edition that I try to remind myself exist*. I might not use any of them, but it is still good to remember.

Arcanis the Omnipotent; Ascendant Evincar; Aura of Silence; Avatar of Might; Beacon of Destruction; Beacon of Immortality; Beacon of Unrest; Clone; Coat of Arms; Commune with Nature; Condemn; Consume Spirit; Creeping Mold; Crucible of Worlds; Cruel Edict; Cryoclasm; Deathmark; Diabolic Tutor; Distress; Doomed Necromancer; Elvish Champion; Elvish Piper; Essence Drain; Evacuation; Field Marshal; Flowstone Slide; Furnace of Rath; Gaea’s Herald; Glorious Anthem; Goblin King; Goblin Lore; Grave Pact; Graveborn Muse; Gravedigger; Guerilla Tactics; Hail of Arrows; Howling Mine; Hurricane; Hypnotic Specter; Icy Manipulator; Incinerate; Legacy Weapon; Lord of the Undead; Loyal Sentry; Manabarbs; Merfolk Looter; Might of Oaks; Mirri, Cat Warrior; Nantuko Husk; Nightmare; Paladin en-Vec; Pariah; Peek; Pithing Needle; Plagiarize; Platinum Angel; Quicksand; Quirion Dryad; Raging Goblin; Rain of Tears; Rampant Growth; Ravenous Rats; Reya Dawnbringer; Royal Assassin; Sculpting Steel; Seedborn Muse; Spark Elemental; Spiketail Hatchling; Story Circle; Thieving Magpie; Threaten; Thrull Surgeon; Tidings; Time Stop; Time Stretch; and Windborn Muse.

It’s possible that I won’t ever use any of these cards. It is still worth being reminded of their existence. It’s possible that someone, somewhere will brew up a new deck, and I’ll think to myself, “Holy Crap, Goblin Lore would be insane in that deck!” But after I make that step, I still have to actually go through the correct steps to make sure that not only is my deck correct, but that my sideboard is correct, and that I know what it takes to make the correct plays in all of the correct situations.

Brewing alone doesn’t get me there. Even playing a lot does not. Playing with the deck is the only way to get there.

This is why Ben and I did not make Top 8 this weekend and why Cedric and John did.

Oh, sure, I can count to my unlucky moments. Things surely don’t get much unluckier than they did for John in the semis, where he mulliganed to five, and failed to do anything that didn’t involve dropping a land. But maybe if I’d worked with my deck more, I would have realized that a mulligan would have been better than my incredibly reactive hand against my Red/Black Blightning opponent. Maybe if I’d played more I would have known to side ever-so-differently versus my Bant opponent, and I wouldn’t have been knocked out of the event. Maybe if I’d played more, I would have known that I ran too many painlands, and I shouldn’t have even been in danger of dying.

But I didn’t.

When this goes up, there will be roughly four days until the next StarCityGames $5000 Standard Open. I’m going to put in enough time so that whether I’m casting Wren’s Run Vanquisher, Bloodbraid Elf, or Noble Hierarch, I’ll know everything I need.

See you this weekend, or next week.

Adrian Sullivan

*The list of cards that I have for my M10 reminders, at least so far, is:

Clone, Wall of Frost, Child of Night, Duress, Vampire Nocturnus, Ball Lightning, Lightning Bolt, Acidic Slime, The Rack, and all of the land.

By the time M10 is out, however, I imagine I won’t need to be reminded that Duress or Lightning Bolt are in the set…