The Most Valuable Lesson You Might Ever Learn

Gerry is re-learning an important lesson about what works and what doesn’t in modern-era Constructed Magic, and he shares it alongside his experiences at this past weekend’s Season Two Invitational… and what he is trying out going forward, for #SCGVEGAS and beyond!

One of my favorite things about Magic is that I can typically pinpoint why I lost a match. If I learn from those lessons and apply them in the future, they won’t happen again. It’s also very telling that despite playing Magic competitively for nearly fifteen years, I’ve still got a lot to learn. Magic truly is a deep game.

Last weekend I played in the Season Two Invitational at Columbus, Ohio. It was my first (big) tournament back since my stint at WotC, and it was one of the most fun weekends I’ve ever had. In the tournament, I played two green decks – G/B Devotion in Standard and Lands in Legacy.

My Standard deck was solid. I was a little flooded at times, so maybe I have too many lands and/or mana creatures. I wouldn’t go as hardcore as Jacob Baugh (with 21 land and ten mana creatures), but there is a happy medium somewhere. Other than that, I’d change the way I sideboarded in some matchups.

As for Lands, I skimped on combo hate since it’s not like you’re realistically winning that matchup anyway. Instead, I chose to fight blue decks, and fight them I did! I fought through Rest in Peace and Surgical Extraction like a champ, mostly thanks to Oracle of Mul Daya.

For the next day, I added the Oracles maindeck over the underperforming Manabonds and was reasonably happy with them. The only other thing I’d change about the deck is finding another reasonable way to find Life from the Loam. Faithless Looting is the best answer I can come up with at the moment, but that doesn’t feel like the correct solution.

I expected to play against B/X Devotion in Standard two or three times, and every other deck once. In Legacy, I predicted that I’d play against blue midrange decks five or six times. In Standard, I defeated B/X Devotion twice and R/W Burn while losing to G/W Aggro, Jund Monsters, Mono-Blue Devotion, and Esper Control. Those matchups, aside from Esper Control, are all pretty good. However, I made a huge mistake.

I played two high-variance decks in an Invitational.

In the matches I lost with both of my decks, I’d have a great draw in one game but mediocre draws in the next. In future events, I won’t be tempting fate and will play something rock-solid. I didn’t want to be the last guy hopping on the Jund Monsters train, but maybe it’s time.

But that’s not the real lesson here. The real lesson is something that I’ve been re-learning over the course of my career. It started with Faeries and continued with Caw-Blade, Delver, Flash, and now rears its head with Mono-Black Devotion. It’s even apparent in my Vintage Masters drafts. Here it is:

Being proactive is king. Control is a flawed strategy. Don’t try to make something be what it’s not.

Let’s start from the beginning.

In 2008, I was somewhat of a known quantity. I had some GP Top 8s, I had been on the PT gravy train (which would equate to gold status these days), but I wasn’t writing and was therefore somewhat under the radar. Faeries was the deck to play and I liked blue cards, so I played it.

No one ever told me it was a beatdown deck.

Back in my day control was defined by inevitability, and I grew up learning how to pilot those decks. Part of that seeped into my psyche, and I haven’t been able to get away from it. My initial inclination is to tune a deck to be more controlling. Sometimes it works out, sometimes it doesn’t.

Being the control deck in a matchup means that you should have inevitability and don’t mind it as much when your draw doesn’t cooperate. That feeling can be intoxicating, but it’s important to recognize when that plan isn’t actually the best plan.

With Faeries, I tried to board in Damnations, Commandeer for the mirror (how else do you beat Bitterblossom on the draw?), or play Mystical Teachings maindeck and zero Scion of Oona like Shouta Yasooka. Those plans were flawed, since I was ignoring what made the deck good in the first place. Instead of trying to create something that wasn’t there, I would have been better served by playing a stock decklist. Fathom Trawl was not the correct answer to my mirror-match woes.

That pattern repeated itself with Caw-Blade. My success with U/W was limited, so eventually I moved to a black splash. Fortunately for me, Inquisition of Kozilek and Creeping Tar Pit pushed me into an aggressive stance almost by accident. I had my own reasons for adding the black cards, and while my Esper versions were almost certainly worse than the popular U/W versions, they dictated that I play the deck correctly even I was building it and sideboarding it incorrectly.

Most of you might have first heard of me when I was dominating with Caw-Blade… and yet the entire time I played the deck, I think I was doing it wrong. To have that sort of success despite being so wrong is incredibly humbling. I can’t imagine what things would have been like if I “got it” during that era.

Initially, Caw-Blade had a lot of counterspells and maindeck Day of Judgments, but as time went on people deemed those cards unnecessary. The real truth is that Edgar Flores was maybe the only person who understood that Caw-Blade was a beatdown deck and did not get nearly enough credit for his innovative changes to the archetype (such as the removal of Gideon Jura). Granted, he might have just been lucky that his natural stance was to be aggressive and played Caw-Blade as such.

Next season we had Delver, which was also an aggressive deck. That much was clearer than with Caw-Blade, but it didn’t stop me from trying to sideboard into a control deck. I don’t think I actually figured out what I was supposed to be doing until I was in the finals of SCG Nashville. My draws and my opponent stumbling dictated that I be the aggressor and not only did it work out for me, it was empowering.

Flash was more of the same. I wanted a U/W Control deck so badly that I was sideboarding garbage like Angel of Serenity. For Pro Tour Gatecrash, I had teammates that built me a real Flash deck, and that seemed to work out well. I briefly flirted with some U/W/R Control decks once Aetherling was printed, but those never worked, so I kept going back to Boros Reckoner and Restoration Angel.

I openly mocked Matt Costa’s and Dave Shiels’ Thundermaw Hellkites, but maybe they were doing it right. I’m leaving myself a reminder here that I like those two guys and need to talk to them more. Perhaps I should even listen to them more.

When people refer to Jund Monsters or Mono-Black Devotion as attrition-based decks, I cringe. If you are actively trying to play them that way, it’s no wonder you think those decks are worse than they actually are. The truth is that most Standard decks present threats and have removal to handle things that are in their way. It’s not uncommon for people who try to play those decks as attrition-based decks to be disappointed by the results. You simply cannot deal with every threat. Even the U/W Control decks don’t operate that way anymore.

“If you’ve ever been wrong before, consider that this may be one of those times.”

That’s a paraphrased quote from Matt Place, courtesy of Patrick Sullivan, and one that is applicable to many things, Magic included. If you’re not getting the same results as other people, consider that you might be missing something.

In the case of Mono-Black Devotion, I think we’re all missing something. We all know the mirror can be volatile, but I think there are ways around that. The most frustrating games are when you’re playing the attrition game and they peel an Underworld Connections, allowing them to run away with the game.

Those situations lead to knee-jerk reactions where people splash green in order to have answers to everything. In reality, they cut down on answers to Desecration Demon, which is far more dangerous to leave unchecked than any amount of Underworld Connections.

Consider this: In a mirror match, you’re removing their threats and eventually run out of removal. You have to take a turn off of killing their creatures in order to play an Underworld Connections, but you’re still taking hits from a random Lifebane Zombie and a Mutavault. You draw into creatures instead of removal, but they’re able to remove those and sneak in the last few points of damage.

It reminded me of the way to beat Bitterblossom back in the day. If they had it and you didn’t, you needed to get aggressive. You would lose more often than not, but those games you managed to win by nickel-and-diming them for damage felt so good. Unfortunately, back in the day, most of your creatures died in combat to a 1/1 Faerie, so there wasn’t much you could do aside from make a Mistbind Clique or attack with Mutavaults.

However, today we have plenty of good options. Herald of Torment and even Pain Seer let you get your aggression on early, forcing them to start answering your creatures or lose. This plan has worked relatively well in the mirror matches I’ve played so far.

With Gray Merchant of Asphodel gone (the one in the sideboard doesn’t count), the “devotion” moniker leaves as well. That said, Gray Merchant might still be necessary for reach, but this is what I’m trying. I’m confident this is slightly better than the mono-air Sylvan Caryatid/Courser of Kruphix version I posted and it is certainly better than any deck with Mind Rot.

Still, I’m not convinced that this is a perfect plan. Pain Seer can be a blank piece of cardboard, so it might be best out of the sideboard, and the overall power level is slightly lower. Your Jund Monsters matchup is better, since you can actually clock them while making their life miserable with discard and removal spells. I like the Duress maindeck not just to protect your creatures from removal but also because it’s great against planeswalkers, which is one of the ways you can lose to Jund Monsters.

The best plan I’ve found against Burn (thanks to a forum poster for the suggestion!) is to board into eight discard effects. Use them to strip their removal spells and race them with your creatures. Keeping in Thoughtseize might seem counterintuitive, but they only have a certain amount of cards that matter in the scheme of things.

The other option that I’m entertaining is a mashup between my Pro Tour Theros deck and Jared Boettcher’s B/R Devotion deck from the Season Two Invitational in Columbus last weekend. The theory there is that Rakdos Keyrune helps facilitate the splash, allowing you to go deeper on Mizzium Mortars and Hammer of Purphoros. Keyrune also gives you another threat to punch through their Underworld Connections.

There are also the games where you Thoughtseize their threats, leaving them with a pile of removal. Those are the games where Rakdos’s Return cleans house. It doesn’t hurt to have another card that gives you reach either. Dreadbore allows you to fight Jund Monster’s planeswalkers, but make sure you pack enough things to kill Master of Waves, unlike what I did at the Pro Tour.

I’m still not sure which creature is “correct” in the maindeck, Lifebane Zombie or Nightveil Specter. The latter certainly puts a strain on your manabase, otherwise I’d be playing a few Mountains. However, it is basically a must-kill threat in the mirror matches which Lifebane Zombie can be ignored to an extent. I think Nightveil is generally a more threatening card against a random opponent, but making the mana work is certainly an issue.

Underworld Connections is pretty overrated at the moment. Against decks like Mono-Blue Devotion, Mono-Green Devotion, Mono-Red Devotion, or Jund Monsters, you are vying for board control. Rarely does the “draw two cards per turn and kill everything” plan work out.

Going forward, I’m going to try B/R Devotion… and if that doesn’t pan out, I’ll finally try Jund Monsters. Other than that, I’ll be working on getting Scapeshift where I want to be for Modern. Kiki Control has been excellent so far, although the addition of Counterflux and Crucible of Worlds to the sideboard has been part of that.

I played with Prophetic Flamespeaker in Jund and was very impressed. However, I’m firmly convinced that G/B is where you should be, as the red is simply not worth it. Other than that, I’ve got some Nivmagus Elementals that need dusting off!