The Magic Jerk: Growing Pains

Getting better is not easy, and it’s not fun, at least not after a while. Sometimes when I’m feeling optimistic I like to look at how far I’ve come in the past year. U.S. Nationals was last summer. This spring I’m going to the Pro Tour, and even though it’s “only” a team event, I couldn’t be more proud of where I am as a Magic player. Still, getting better sucks, and if you are anything like me, you probably have some good stories about the growing pains you have gone through as part of improving your game.

Those who cannot tell what they desire or expect, still sigh and struggle with indefinite thoughts and vast wishes.

– Ralph Waldo Emerson (1803 – 1882)

Getting better is not easy, and it’s not fun, at least not after a while. Sometimes when I’m feeling optimistic I like to look at how far I’ve come in the past year. U.S. Nationals was last summer. This spring I’m going to the Pro Tour, and even though it’s “only” a team event, I couldn’t be more proud of where I am as a Magic player. Still, getting better sucks.

The other day I was sitting down playing against a Neutral Ground regular. We were testing Extended, he with the Rock and I with Aluren. We must’ve played about 8 games, where I won about half of them I guess. Our play skills are not so disparate that we couldn’t test together, but he’s young, so I assumed so I should be outplaying him. As it turned out I was the one being outplayed. His plan was consistently better than mine, and each game ended with me feeling as though I could’ve won but not knowing how.

Finally I got frustrated, I think there were calls of luck involved (hey, he did top deck a few times) and I just tossed the deck aside and sat down for a while lost in thought. This is something I like. You see, I didn’t get the Magic Jerk title for nothing, I am a bit of a jerk, or at least, I can come off that way. Deep down I’m actually an awful sap most of the time, but when I’m at the Ground testing day after day, hour after hour I can sometimes get frustrated or just short. I’d rather just test game after game and occasionally my personality can gum things up with things like a desire to win. I’m terribly competitive, so it’s tough to turn that side of me off while testing a deck.

The point is Magic itself may be just a game, but the struggle to become really good is anything but. Most of us are not gifted Magicians like Finkel or Maher or Budde, instead we have to hone our abilities to a razor’s edge in order to compete on the world stage. I’ve seen some of the game’s best start out as scrubs at a PTQ, and now that I interact with people that come from every level of the game, I’m surprised just how many aren’t naturally perfect Magic players. This should make you hopeful – I know it makes me feel that a scrub like me can have a chance at the game’s highest levels.

So after getting bashed by my friend I was sitting in Neutral, alone in the crowd, surrounded by noise. You see Neutral Ground is noisy all the time – really noisy. There is the boisterous Yu-Gi-Oh! crowd with their calculators and trash talk, the occasional outburst of the Roleplayers as they slay a Dragon or roll a natural 20, and the ever-present murmur of conversation that pervades the store. I like sitting in the middle of it sometimes like this, letting my OCD take over while shuffling my deck over and over again, just letting my mind drift. I think best when my head is drifting, and this time was no exception.

After about 10 minutes, I came back to my friend and sat him down. I think he was expecting me to be pissed at him, or at least to complain about his top decking skills. Instead the only thing I said was, “So what did we learn?” He seemed surprised, but he sat down and we figured out that I was attacking the match from a fundamentally incorrect angle. I was trying to protect all of my combo pieces in my hand with Brainstorms and Vampiric Tutors in order to work around Pernicious Deed. However, because of the way his build was setup, he was able to wreck me with his second Cranial Extraction multiple games, especially with Eternal Witness backup.

On the other hand, if I was willing to risk the Pernicious Deed, I could play out Aluren as fast as possible, and try to assemble the combo after the fact, thus reducing my risk to Cranial Extraction. We ran a few more games and I worked on the matchup with someone else for a few more minutes, and it was immediately obvious that this plan was infinitely superior to my previous effort. Though the numbers were irrelevant with such a small sample size, similar situations would pop up now that I could combo more effectively, and the wins that at first seemed elusive now were being achieved with little effort. Think smarter, not harder.

Now that the Extended PTQ season is in full swing, it’s obvious how a solid understanding of your deck and its matchups are so important to your chances of winning. Many of the powerful Extended decks of this season are combo decks, decks that are notoriously difficult to sideboard with for the middling player. It’s important, very important, to understand what you’re doing when you sideboard. An incorrect sideboard in a combo deck will not just hinder your chances of winning by drawing the wrong card, but it will actively constrict the deck’s chances of winning if you begin to take out cards integral to the workings of the deck. This is especially important in the light of so many people Net Decking lately, judging from the PTQ Top 8 lists on mtg.com. Oiso may be a Master Magician, but it’s important to understand just why he had some cards in his sideboard and why others may not be quite as necessary at the PTQ level.

This is why I’m so surprised when Magic writers talk about how to sideboard. Many speak of sideboarding as the final stage of learning the deck, looking at what cards should be in your sideboard what matchup and then how to replace them with cards in your deck. Though I agree with this in principle, I think it attacks the problem in an incorrect manner. The best way to learn how to sideboard is not to study your sideboard, it’s to study your deck. If you know how the deck plays out Game 1 against the field, for instance, then you know exactly what you want to bring in against them, but more importantly, what you want to take out. If it wasn’t working in Game 1, chances are it will be working even worse under the pressures of specialized cards out of the board.

I find that when I’m working out how to sideboard in a tournament (usually after Game 1 of Round 1 basically) I’m always more concerned with what I should be taking than what I’m bringing in. It’s pretty obvious that against a deck with counters, for instance, I’d like to bring in Duress, or against Enchantress I should probably get my Deeds and Naturalizes sleeved up. After I get the cards to bring in though, I’m always more hesitant on what to take out. How important is it to keep in all my combo pieces? Is there a need for Wall of Blossoms to block, or will I need targets to flashback Cabal Therapy with. These questions and many others plague me in the few moments between games, and this is why I think that learning how to sideboard by analyzing the main deck rather than the sideboard is the most effective of learning what your deck needs and wants in order to maximizing its win percentage.

Extended PTQs are certainly a mixed bag. I’ve been traveling all over the East Coast with no end in sight in order to qualify for Philly and I’ve played against almost every deck in the format. I missed Top 8 by a round to the Q’s eventual winner in Maryland, and watched as Bryn Kenney scooped up his cards in the finals of Philly’s Q. I’m reminded of how much I like PTQing but at the same time I’m stuck with the desire to just finish this quest and be able to move on to working on PT Philly and Block decks. Extended is a great format – it’s varied, exciting, and no deck is a clear favorite, but I would be lying if I said I enjoyed playing combo all day.

I’d like to end this article with a little tech from the weekend. I’ve been working on Aluren religiously and I think I have an improved deck list from Oiso’s. I’m not a fan of making changes to better decks, but I think that these changes can really help with the deck. Here is my current list of Aluren:

Aluren v. 1.1

// Lands

4 City of Brass

4 Havenwood Battleground

4 Llanowar Wastes

3 Polluted Delta

2 Yavimaya Coast

2 Island

2 Swamp

1 Reflecting Pool

// Creatures

4 Birds of Paradise

4 Wall of Blossoms

3 Cavern Harpy

3 Raven Familiar

1 Cloud of Faeries

1 Auriok Champion

1 Maggot Carrier

// Spells

4 Brainstorm

4 Cabal Therapy

4 Aluren

3 Vampiric Tutor

3 Living Wish

2 Intuition

1 Chrome Mox

// Sideboard

1 Cavern Harpy

1 Raven Familiar

1 Auriok Champion

1 Eternal Witness

1 Gilded Drake

1 Bone Shredder

1 Stern Proctor

2 Pernicious Deed

3 Naturalize

1 Eladamri’s Vineyard

1 Genesis

1 Forbidden Orchard

The main deck changed in one subtle way: I added Maggot Carrier to the main and put Eternal Witness in the board. This means that I can kill at Instant speed and don’t ever have to cast Living Wish. Plus if I do need Witness, now I can Wish for it at my leisure rather than trying to dig for it.

The board has changed mildly. Eladamri’s Vineyard is insane against Red Deck Wins, as their best method of winning is to try to keep your mana under control. Genesis / Meloku is for the Rock matchup, and Forbidden Orchard is a colored source of mana in the board. I think Volrath’s Stronghold a lot but it seemed that the only way I could lose to many matchups was getting color or mana screwed, and Wishing for this land is slow enough where you shouldn’t tap it enough to give them an overwhelming army of dorks before you combo off.

That’s all I’ve got for this week, good luck in this weekend’s PTQs.

Michael Clair

[email protected]