KICK, WHAM, STUNNER and I’m back again – the man with equal amounts of ego and talent. I went 1-2 and dropped out of the recent GPT Cleveland in Garden City, Michigan. How did this happen? I’ll tell you.
First, let me give you my decklist, which I also included in yesterday’s column:
Sleight Knight 2002 (GPT Cleveland, Geordie Tait)
4 Hapless Researcher
4 Mental Note
4 Aether Burst
4 Nantuko Blightcutter
4 Phantom Centaur
4 Mystic Enforcer
3 Alter Reality
2 Llawan, Cephalid Empress
4 Sungrass Prairie
1 Tarnished Citadel
4 Elephant Guide
3 Ray of Revelation
Mistake #1: Goldfish Testing Does Not Equal Playtesting
The only thing that test draws really do is check your manabase. Even then, you’re playing in an environment where people are going to be playing Rancid Earth and killing your Werebears all the time. The deck underwent a ton of changes – none of which were actually live-fire tested. It was all theoretical. If you’re good at extrapolating how certain configurations will perform, you can sometimes get away with half-assing it like that… But I was just flying blind, and when the fateful day arrived my ships were caught in port.
There were some things I realized far too late, simply because I’d been goldfishing for too long and doing far too little actual testing, especially against monoblack. This caused a ton of problems. Getting my early creatures Edicted was a pain – one that I hadn’t had to endure when I was doing test draws. The third-turn Phantom Centaur that I was getting with such regularity while drawing hand after hand after hand at my coffee table was an illusion in some matchups – the Werebear always bites it against Monoblack.
Another thing I didn’t realize until it was too late was the fact that the land count was too low for a deck with a six-mana combo and ten four-drops. Even with four Hapless Researchers and four Mental Notes, twenty-two lands doesn’t help you out of color screw, and it’s hard to use those cantrips when you draw the Forest, Sungrass Prairie hand.
Mistake #2: A Fun But Flawed Concept
This deck could do some very fun things – and it beat White decks especially, using Alter Reality on their Divine Sacraments and rumbling in with 7/7 Protection from White Nantuko Blightcutters. A turn 5 or 6 Llawan/Reality was game against White as well, unless the guy was somehow still holding three or four Battle Screeches. Very fun, very rogue.
Unfortunately, it was also very mediocre against some things (never mind that it could still lose to White if a Morningtide were to resolve at a bad time).
The deck is based on two things – threshold, and Alter Reality with Protection from Black creatures, Blightcutter threshold, and Llawan. For the purposes of playing against Monoblack, the creatures might as well not even have Protection from Black at all – because the main black deck in the environment runs something like four Innocent Bloods, four Chainer’s Edicts, four Mutilates. Phantom Centaur bites it from any of those just like everything else, Pro Black be damned. Nantuko Blightcutter’s ability is useless, as the black deck will seldom have permanents. Mystic Enforcer also dies to all sixteen maindeck kill spells. You avoid Faceless Butchers – but so what? They just take the Werebears.
I had a lot of players call it the”Anti-Monoblack” deck when they saw it on Saturday, but it was probably worse against Monoblack than a lot of U/G decks because it was based on a few large creatures (backed by no countermagic until after sideboarding) instead of a swarm of fast beatdown backed by Circular Logic. Edict eats fatties for breakfast, but the monoblack player will get run over by the double-Safekeeper/Rootwalla, Mongrel, Arrogant Wurm, Circular Logic draw.
I think the real anti-monoblack deck is the one with four Rancid Earths and Braids in the main, or a fast U/G with maindeck Envelop and/or Standstill. So the deck wasn’t very good against monoblack, and it had numerous dead cards to boot.
Then there was U/G, where Wild Mongrel also made protection from a certain color next to useless. Protection from a color grants evasion and defense, but both are useless if they have Wonder in the yard and you don’t. The best way to get evasion is to have Wonder in the yard. The Alter Reality route just wasn’t as effective without the assurance that, all things being equal, both armies would be on the ground; Wonder tosses that out the window. He draws his and you don’t draw yours, you’re in trouble no matter how many 5/5 Pro Green Blightcutters you have.
Before I forget, I should mention that Sleight Knight decks were impossible to color hose because of the Sleight of Mind. This was back in the day when WW decks would get wrecked by Gloom. This advantage is nowhere to be seen in OBC, because there are no playable color hosers in Odyssey Block constructed. Often I would find myself staring at Alter Reality and saying,”if this card could change land types, it would be amazing.”
The bottom line is that because of the presence of Wild Mongrel, Wonder, and the twelve (sixteen, if you count flashback) black non-targeted kill spells, it was the wrong environment to put all your eggs in a Protection from (x) basket.
Mistake #3: Those Zany Two-Card Combos
There’s an important difference between”synergy” and”reliance.”
Wild Mongrel is a good card. You get the triple-Mongrel draw, you can apply pressure like it was going out of style. What if you get the triple-Alter Reality draw?
I’ll tell you what happens then – you pack ’em up.
Same thing with the close relatives of the Alter Reality draw – the quadruple Blightcutter draw, and the double-Llawan draw.
Llawan is absolutely god-awful if drawn without Alter Reality. With it, she can win the game for six mana… But without it, you just took a mulligan.
Nantuko Blightcutter is a Grey Ogre unless you have Alter Reality and threshold. Well, I guess that isn’t quite right. With no threshold, Alter Reality can still make it a Darkwatch Elf or Bloated Toad or something like that. That’s just ugly. Sure, with seven in the yard and an Alter Reality, it starts sending through those Glory-backed Screech tokens to the tune of seven to eight damage per turn… But will that really happen often enough?
To be honest, it actually was pretty reliable (Alter Reality having flashback helped a lot, since I could Mental Note it into the grave, moving towards threshold at the same time) but not reliable enough to spare me a fairly large number of dead Blightcutter draws.
Wild Mongrel and Circular Logic are synergistic, but both are excellent by themselves. This is the best case scenario.
Catalyst Stone and any flashback spell are synergistic. Catalyst Stone is awful alone – but all the flashback spells are fine on their own, so it’s only half-reliant. This is fine if your deck is built for it. Catalyst Stone also sometimes does something all by itself – it can screw opposing flashback spells. This is less desirable, but it can be worth it if the effect is beneficial and if the deck makes it consistent.
Llawan, Cephalid Empress and Alter Reality are reliant on each other; they are awful alone. If you draw one and not the other, you’re in deep trouble. This is the worst-case scenario: Two cards that do absolute jack squat alone, trying to pair together in a deck without much search and no tutors. The effect is impressive, but it’s not worth it. Which leads us to our fourth mistake…
Mistake #4: If You’re Forced To Play Bad Cards, Have A Good Reason
Is Alter Reality/Llawan any better than something involving Upheaval (like Infestation, Psychatog, et cetera), if you consider consistency, mana cost, and the cards you’re required to play with to pull it off?
So why bother?
Make no mistake – Alter Reality/Llawan is good (the effect is, anyway), and it will win games. The problem is that you have to play with Llawan and Alter Reality in your deck to pull it off, and both of them are terrible cards. Wild Mongrel/Arrogant Wurm might not be the most game-breaking combo in the world, but at least both of the cards are good and they have synergy with any number of other excellent U/G cards.
The reason I’m playing Alter/Llawan is to smoke creature decks, right? So what about monoblack? I just fired five dead cards into my deck for a chance at a crappy combo that may or may not beat Green (can I really stalemate the board long enough to pull this off against Wurms, Mongrels and other beats? not all the time) and that beats White, which I should probably beat anyway.
Mistake #5: Hapless Researcher Just Isn’t Very Good
He’s techy, he’s got synergy with flashback, madness, and threshold, he’s an Edict target and a great spot to put Elephant Guide…
And he’s utterly, totally underpowered.
The poor Researcher is like an early Fog that lets you Loot once. I thought I’d see a lot of U/G beatdown, and I wanted to get threshold, so I decided to run the Researcher instead of Careful Study for better synergy with my sideboarded Elephant Guides, while adding a creature that would also serve up an additional Edict target to take the heat off of my Werebears. I also planned to chump block early Mongrels while I was setting up my defense.
Sadly, both Hapless Researcher and Careful Study aren’t very good when you’re not running any madness or flashback spells. If you’re going to play a card that’s essentially a mulligan, you have to build your deck for it – like Deep Dog did for Careful Study. My deck just doesn’t do that, and there are better ways to search for land than a Hapless Mulligan.
Why didn’t I play flashback spells with all my Mental Notes and Researchers?
Mistake #6: Fearing Cards That Don’t Show Up
I decided early on in my preparations (which started about two-three weeks before the tournament) that I didn’t want to run any flashback spells because of Catalyst Stone in the maindecks of Quiet Roar. (I ended up running Alter Reality, but the flashback was a cheap bonus on that anyway).
How many Catalyst Stones were out there at the GPT? Almost none. Maybe there were some in sideboards, but I didn’t notice any. I cut off a lot of deckbuilding choices because of the fear of Catalyst Stone. Sometimes you just have to bite the bullet and face the hate head on, and you’ll emerge the better for it.
Roar of the Wurm is just good. Deep Analysis is just good. It should take a lot more than Catalyst Stone (which I didn’t want to play myself) to keep those cards out of my deck, especially in an environment like block, where overpowered cards stick out like a sore thumb and are usually your best friends.
Mistake #7: Preparing For The Wrong Opposition
I thought there would be mostly U/G decks at the GPT, so I jammed by deck full of potentially flying threshold fat, weird creature combat-reliant tricks, Aether Burst for tempo against those speedsters and for the opposing Wurms, Hapless Researcher to chump early Mongrels while I tried to get my 5/3 Phantoms online… You get the idea.
Oh, and of course there was Llawan/Alter Reality, which would oust the entire enemy side, never to return.
The field was 50% monoblack, at least. It might actually have been two-thirds monoblack. My friend Jean-Marc Babin played against five monoblack decks in seven rounds, and I played against two monoblack decks in three rounds.
My matchup with monoblack using Sleight Knight 2002 is something like 33% Game 1, 50% Games 2 and 3 – and those aren’t good numbers when you’re facing a sea of Swamp-fueled mayhem. Predictably, I took it right in the lunch chamber in Round 1 before pulling off a fluke win in Round 2 against a mono-black deck that drew five land in a row. Then I lost to Mono-White, my best matchup, in Round 3.
How many U/G decks is that again? Oh yeah. None.
Let it be a lesson. Just play the best deck. Make sure it has good matchups against everything. Tweak your sideboard if you encounter trouble. Learn the matchups inside and out. Then, go and outplay people. You don’t need gimmicky”tech” to do well; you just need to be prepared.
Mistake #8: Brute Force Beats Finesse When You’re In The Wrong Colors And Playing Experimental Cards
I wasted a lot of my testing time before I realized just how fast those beatdown decks with Roar and Wonder can be. I wrote recently that I thought Possessed Centaur was a good card for OBC – and I still think it is, but maybe not as the top of a beatdown or threshold deck manacurve, and certainly not as a splash in U/G. It took me too long to realize that once the Centaur gets online and ready to eat Wurms of all kinds, they’re serving for lots of damage.
The activation cost isn’t pretty either… It costs you 2B to kill a green creature… But what if they just play more and keep swinging? You will have trouble casting your fatties if you have 2B tied up every turn.
It takes time to get threshold. It takes time to set up those two card combos. It takes precious, precious time to stalemate that board so your better late-game cards can win it for you. And they are swinging every turn, just turning men sideways with reckless abandon.
Werebear is slow. Wild Mongrel is fast.
Phantom Centaur is slow. Arrogant Wurm is fast.
Cephalid Broker is slow. Roar of the Wurm is fast.
If you’re going to play with the cards from column A, and they’re all fine choices (the Broker is one of my favorites if you can get it running, though with so many quality cards fighting for the 4CC slot, is there a deck out there that can use it?) you have to be prepared to deal with the beaters from column B – and let me tell you that just like pimpin’, it ain’t easy. I tried my best to make my slower deck packing ten four-drops into a force that could hold its own against fast beats – and I don’t think I really succeeded. I did do it, but I had to play stuff like Hapless Researcher just so I’d have a turn 1 play that could block.
You think you’re going to gradually gain board control? There’s no time! Gain it now or die!
Mistake #9: Bad Manabases, Butt-Ugly Land Counts
Playing three colors in a block without a good five-color or three-color land isn’t much fun. I would probably have had a more consistent deck if I’d just cut the Enforcers, played Krosan Beast instead, and booted the Alter Reality and Llawan and Nantuko Blightcutter and Hapless Researcher for Basking Rootwalla, Wild Mongrel, Roar, and Careful Study or something. Straight U/G. Four Sungrass Prairie is just cruising for a bruising in a twenty-two-lander, and sure enough – I got the one-Prairie draw on numerous occasions.
My kingdom for a U/G Block multiland. Now I know why Ken Ho ran that Citadel – because I did too, and I was glad to see it every time I drew it.
As for the land count, I’ll repeat what was said in Mistake #1: Twenty-two is not enough for a deck with ten four-drops. The Werebears get smoked so much that they shouldn’t count – and as far as Hapless Researcher goes, he’s like taking a mulligan to get more land. Since when is that strong?
Mistake #10: Not A Comer Or A Kibler But A Dabbler
I’m a writer, I’m a player, I’m a collector. I’m a lot of things when it comes to Magic. Still, a man must know his limits, and I think there was a lot of hubris involved when I decided to try going rogue in a format that I knew too little about.
At this stage of my OBC career, I’m no rogue deckbuilder. I make too many mistakes, and I have too poor an understanding of the format. I’m going to find a deck I like, play the heck out of it, learn the ins and the outs and the matchups – and then, once I know what I’m doing, I might try my hand at a little bit of that rogue action.
My advice to anyone out there who thinks they have a good idea is to make sure you’re not making any of these mistakes before you unleash your secret deck upon the world at a PTQ or GPT in your area. Don’t screw your deck against 80% of the field because you’re afraid of Catalyst Stone. Don’t play substandard crap. Stay away from those two card combos.
Play solid cards in a solid deck, play it until you’re blue in the face, tweak that sideboard, and then go out there and win. I know you can do it. I think I can do it too. See you in Garden City for the PTQ this weekend.
Oh, and for you regular readers, I’ll see you tomorrow with a quick tournament report for my 1-2 performance. It’ll be short, ugly, and good for a few laughs.