The Virtues of Planning

Ravnica-Guildpact Sealed is a complex beast. Should we run three, four, even five colors? Is mana the key, or should we compromise for power? How can we ensure we beat the decks at the top tables? In this enlightening article, Chad shares his golden rules of Sealed deckbuilding, focusing his advice for the Pro Tour Qualifier crowd.

I woke up Saturday morning with visions of going 4-0 in the Pro Tour Qualifier and then dropping. Thursday night I got a nasty case of food poisoning and while I was able to eat half a bagel on Saturday morning I still felt incredibly weak. Serious Magic is tiring enough when you’re in good shape, so I had no idea whether I’d be able to play the day or would find myself taking a nap in the corner.

As it was, I managed to draw one round and then lose two more before dropping and winning some side Drafts. I don’t know if I could have piloted my card pool to a Top 8 result even in perfect condition. I have no doubt that I misbuilt it, and how and why I did so provides some valuable lessons.

One of my rules for Sealed goes back to Urza Block when Matt Rauseo, self-proclaimed best player in the room, asked me why I wasn’t maindecking Annul. I answered that I sided it in sometimes but didn’t want to maindeck it because it would be dead against some decks and because, unlike Disenchant, it couldn’t deal with things already in play. Matt replied that he always maindecked Annul because you needed it to beat the best decks.

Matt had hit upon one of the fundamental points of a Sealed Pro Tour Qualifier metagame. Some card pools are better than others, and if you manage to win the first few rounds you will start to face them. In Urza Block this means that at the 4-0 table you can almost assume that your opponent has Pestilence – and if he doesn’t he probably has some number of Pacifism or Veiled Serpent, or perhaps one of the many bomb artifact rares. I had been evaluating Annul on general principles and concluding (rightly or wrongly) that against a random card pool I’d rather have it in the board. Matt was making sure that his deck was capable of beating the best card pools in the room.

Over time this led me to my number one rule of Sealed Deck Pro Tour Qualifiers – maximize the chances your deck has of winning a match against an unfair Sealed Deck. In another Urza Block tournament this meant splashing Jagged Lightning. I made my mana worse by doing so, but it meant that I had the raw power that I needed in the later rounds. (I made Top 8 with that deck, winning two matches with Jagged Lightning, although I lost the Draft.)

I’ve read articles in which professional players sometimes “misbuild” Sealed Decks – I put misbuild in quotes because I think they may do so because they aren’t playing in Pro Tour Qualifiers. It used to be that the typical Grand Prix Day 1 was seven rounds, and 5-1-1 made Day 2. If you’ve got three byes that means you only need to go 2-1 in three rounds, after which you can probably draw in. Moreover, a lot of the 3-0 and 4-0 players you’ll meet don’t have 3-0 and 4-0 card pools because they’ve had byes just like you. Given that, and the large skill gap you expect to have against anyone who does have a gross card pool, it’s reasonable to build a highly-consistent deck.

In a Boston or New York Limited Pro Tour Qualifier, a “highly-consistent” deck that leaves some power cards in the board is usually a nice recipe for a 5-2 result at best. From the point of view of qualifying, 5-2 may as well be 0-2 except that when you go 0-2 you can win a bunch of packs in side Drafts.

With that in mind, here is the deck I ran at my last Pro Tour Qualifier:

1cc: Boros Recruit
2cc: Boros Guildmage, Selesnya Guildmage, Sell-Sword Brute, Tin-Street Hooligan
3cc: Civic Wayfinder, Skyknight Legionnaire, Shrieking Grotesque, Golgari Brownscale, Galvanic Arc, Moldervine Cloak, 2 Pillory of the Sleepless
4cc: 2 Gruul Scrapper, Ordruun Commando, Dogpile, Gaze of the Gorgon
5cc: Bramble Elemental, Dowsing Shaman, Predatory Focus
6cc: Hammerfist Giant
7cc: Siege Wurm

Lands: 2 Gruul Turf, Golgari Rot Farm, 3 Plains, 2 Swamp, 5 Forest, 5 Mountain

At first glance this looks like a great deck. It has a low curve of high-quality creatures, including one of the best two-mana creatures in the game and another that can utterly destroy an opponent who leads with a Signet. That curve is then supported by three good spot removal spells (plus the situational Dogpile), one of which can go to the face and two more that can do the last few points on their own. There’s also a difficult-to-get-rid of +3/+3 local enchantment aura that can turn even Boros Recruit into a major threat. If all that fails and the opponent stabilizes, then Hammerfist Giant or Predatory Focus can serve as a finisher.

Although my first choice for a Sealed Pro Tour Qualifier is Control, I’m a fan of beatdown decks that combine an early rush with solid removal and the ability to force through damage other than by having creatures go unblocked. It seems other people are too. Even though I only played three rounds, at least two spectators asked me how I could ever lose a game with this deck – and yet I consider it almost without a doubt one of the worst I’ve played out of perhaps fifteen.

So what’s wrong with it? More to the point, how could I have made it better?

Let’s start with the likelihood that this deck will do absolutely nothing on turn 2. Because White is a splash supported by just three Plains (and the Civic Wayfinder, of course), the Guildmages are surprisingly difficult to cast on turn 2. That leaves just the Brute and the Hooligan… and with only five Mountains in the deck, they aren’t reliable either.

“Go” is not what a pressure deck wants to say on turn 2.

Next up, while Moldervine Cloak can theoretically turn any man into a machine, my creatures are otherwise in pretty bad shape to win fights. I don’t have any pump (how desperate is this deck for a couple of Wildsize?) or Bloodthirst, meaning that any deck with Forests (and some without) will typically be playing creatures as large as or larger than mine.

So far, my deck isn’t grabbing the initiative early or winning fights late. Anything else? Yep, my mana is actually pretty bad for two of my best spells – the Pillories. I ran these cards because of the “beat the best decks” theory, but in doing so I violated one of the basic rules of five-color Limited – unless you’ve got a ton of fixing, don’t run spells that require two splash colors to cast.

I also violated a rule that basically says this: every rule should be violated rather than do something stupid. OK, so it’s important to build a deck that can beat the best decks, and this often means pushing your mana a bit so you can play bombs and/or spells that handle bombs. But can this deck really beat a god deck unless it gets an absolutely insane draw? No.

Instead, I should have remembered that the most important rule, the Rule of All Rules: have a plan for winning that suits the deck you’re running. A deck with no true bombs, no card-drawing, and a modest number of good answer cards is not going to win long games at the top table. I need to win the way my curve looks like it should win – by putting my opponent under constant pressure from turn 2. So how can I do this?

Kick 'em to the kerb, girl-friend!

Drop the Pillories.

With just three colors (and still running two R/G duals) I can up my Plains count to five or six, dramatically increasing my odds of playing a bear on turn 2 and another threat on turn 3. I can then run Seeds of Strength, which will help my somewhat-average sized creatures keep up. The other replacement spell will be Wojek Embermage (also useful for helping my creatures fight their betters, especially with Boros Guildmage). Neither is as powerful as what they replace, but they go well with the deck’s plan and – by improving the mana base substantially – improve the ability of the rest of the cards to make that plan happen.

Is the resulting deck above average? I may be biased in favor of removal and card-drawing but I would say no. Is it a deck that can win? Yes… because it is a deck with a plan.

Having a plan, knowing what it is and playing consistently with it is one of the fundamentals of Magic, and yet very few articles talk about it and very few players seem to live by it. (Contrast this with chess where every decent book discusses plans as the central aspect of play that they are.) Violating your plan without overwhelming reason to do so is a recipe for disaster.

Here’s an example from shortly after Ravnica came out. After a rather land-heavy draw, my Boros deck had stalled out against a Golgari deck. I had just two creatures in play – a Boros Recruit and a 2/2 – but I had Rally the Righteous and Incite Hysteria in hand. My opponent was at twelve or thirteen life with two defenders back, and was starting to attack with a Hill Giant.

I sent with my Boros Recruit and my opponent (who had just tapped out) decided not to block. Then, when he sent back with his Hill Giant, I used Rally the Righteous to untap and put my 3/1 first striker in front of it.

How awful.

I can’t actually keep track of how many ways this was a mistake. The fact that my opponent declined to block while tapped out strongly suggests that he has either pump or removal in hand – if he doesn’t, why wait to force the trick out of my hand? That makes it tactically weak to try to ambush the Hill Giant, and sure enough he trumped and I lost my Recruit and my Rally for his Gather Courage. It was strategically weak because the Hill Giant in question has Dredge, so it’s not like I’m shutting off his gradual offense. But most of all, it’s weak because I have a rather obvious plan to win and this play tosses it out the window.

My victory path is to draw pretty much any two guys (or possibly just one) and then combine Incite Hysteria and Rally the Righteous for the kill.

A couple of turns later I drew Boros Swiftblade and dropped him onto the table. Boros alone would have combined with my other two creatures to deal thirteen points of damage, but without the Rally he hits for two, not six. Before I could draw enough additional power I was forced to start blocking and I lost quickly thereafter.

Most decisions in Magic can only be made correctly in the context of a plan. Let me use my deck from the second post-PTQ draft to illustrate. The field wasn’t bad, but for some reason Dimir was insanely underdrafted and I ended up with a deck that packed more late game power than any I can recall. I had two copies each of Consult the Necrosages and Compulsive Research, plus two Drift of Phantasms to search for them and an Izzet Chronarch to get them back. In case I needed even more card advantage, I had a Dimir Guildmage as well.

The rest of the deck featured a lovely Millstone package of Entrancer, Informant and Psychic Drain, supported by a ton of removal and bounce. It was an insane deck.

A Funky Ball o' Tits from Outer Space

But what was its plan? Which card is a better aid to victory – Psychic Drain or Mnemonic Nexus, and why?

The long-term plan was board control and overwhelming card advantage. In pure victory terms, the Psychic Drain should have been Mnemonic Nexus so that once I got my engine going I could simply kill everything my opponent played (or bounce it and make him discard) while drawing three or four cards every turn. I won every game via decking, but that was just my fastest way to win; once you have total control you can win how you please. The Psychic Drain wasn’t better than Nexus because of how I was trying to win, but because of how I was trying not to lose.

The short term plan was simple… survive. The likelihood of any other deck being able to match my long game was virtually zero, so my early game strategy was just to live. This meant not getting greedy – I would happily Disembowel almost any creature that would otherwise deal me damage, rather than trying to stabilize the board a few turns later and saving my removal for a bigger problem. My Dimir Guildmage would happily trade with a Civic Wayfinder if the alternative was me taking two. I played Followed Footsteps on a Veteran Armorer despite knowing that my opponent had much juicier targets coming later. I didn’t worry about getting the “maximum” out of my cards, because I knew that every turn I stayed alive and that my board position didn’t deteriorate brought me a turn closer to winning.

I lost two games with the deck. In one I kept a hand with land, two card-draw spells and a five-drop, and the five-drop was the first non-draw spell I played. In another I kept a hand with two Islands and never drew a third. In the other games I had to play a defensive game until my card advantage took over. Once it did it was like an avalanche. Disembowel your guy, Chronarch the Disembowel. Block with Chronarch, stack damage, Peel from Reality. This time get back Consult for your last two cards. Two games ended with me stabilizing the board at eight life and then Draining way out of range of what my opponent could do to me…and then playing the Chronarch to Drain again.

Every deck and every matchup should have a plan. Mike Flores contributed massively to this area of theory with Who’s the Beatdown, but it goes beyond that. Assuming you can support both, is Pillory of the Sleepless better or worse than Pacifism? That depends on an evaluation of whether having an ongoing source of damage is better than spending one less mana to pacify an opposing creature. That, in turn, depends on your plan for winning (and for not losing) the matchup.

Since I’m older than anyone reading this, let’s go back in time a bit to when Counter-Sliver was a powerful Extended deck and Sligh was one of its more interesting matchups. The major sideboard choice for Slivers often came down to Worship versus Honorable Passage… but those two cards implied massively different plans. If you were on the Worship plan, you had to be willing to let lethal damage come in (once Worship was in play) and then protect your board assets from Anarchy or, less commonly, some sort of mass removal. That, in turn, usually meant holding back some permission as well. You were going into full control mode, knowing that if you got your lock in place the Sligh player would probably just lose.

Honorable Passage was a very different game. You were playing a damage race and hoping to turn a Ball Lightning or – best of all – a Price of Progress back on your opponent. You still played for board control but your goal was to get some fat and/or untargettable and/or flying slivers into play, and then keep 1WW up (so you didn’t just lose to Wasteland) so you could finish your opponent off.

Which plan was better? That depended on the specific builds of Sligh and, to some extent, on how popular/expected the two plans were. I won one match against a very good Sligh player, in part because his sideboard plan was anti-Worship while I was one of relatively few people on the Honorable Passage plan. The end result was that his Anarchy could only force me to return Crystalline Sliver to my hand, and his Price of Progress was worse than useless.

Finding the best plan is great but the most important thing is having a decent plan and following it through. I’ve talked before about Limited decks I keep seeing that have tons of removal and then some sort of “finisher” card like Devouring Greed – those decks are generally working at cross-purposes. By mixing two sound plans (kill his best creatures and defeat what’s left with my own) and (get him low enough on life so I can finish him) they are getting the most of neither. The same thing is true for play. Let’s say you’re running a beatdown deck and your sideboard strategy (whatever it is) is designed to win the Jitte war. That plan has an implicit assumption that you’re out to win the long game. This means you want to trade creatures and spells rather than life – block when you can!

Sometimes your plan is a response to a specific situation – such as your opening hand. Consider the following possible hands for a Boros Draft deck on the play:

Mountain, Plains, Frenzied Goblin, Boros Recruit, Thundersong Trumpeter, Veteran Armorer, Lightning Helix

Mountain, Plains, Boros Recruit, Thundersong Trumpeter, Galvanic Arc, Indentured Oaf, Sunhome Enforcer.

The first hand is extremely aggressive and has two creatures that can prevent opposing creatures from blocking, but you’re unlikely to play anything more expensive than two mana anytime soon. Your exact sequence of drops will depend on when your opponent first plays out blockers, but barring something extreme you’ll use the Goblin and Trumpeter to push through damage and will probably use Lightning Helix on the first attractive target to maximize your attacking chances. You’ll come out aggressively and hopefully push your opponent off the table before he can stabilize with more expensive spells.

The second draw requires a much different plan. With only two early threats it’s unlikely that you’ll overwhelm your opponent. On the other hand, you have two powerful creatures – either of which is hard to deal with if given first strike, especially with some blockers kept out of use. You need two more land before you can play either, however, so you need to play a more controlling game.

With the first hand, you know you’re on a short clock – eventually your opponent will play spells that are more powerful than your own. In addition to maximizing your scarce mana, you need to maximize the amount of damage you do each turn. Counter-attacks from your opponent are likely irrelevant and when the time comes you will no doubt sacrifice your Frenzied Goblin (and other creatures) to push through a bit more damage.

With the second hand, you have quite a solid pair of mid-game threats. You still need to be somewhat aggressive – a Boros deck rarely if ever truly plays for the long game – but depending on your draw you’ll temper your aggression. If the time comes to sacrifice your Frenzied Goblin, you’ll be doing it as part of an attack that leaves your opponent no worthwhile blocks for your big threats. Meanwhile, you may be content to hold it back during middle turns so that the threat of attacking with it forces your opponent to keep an extra blocker or two back.

Planning is thus a central part of every facet of the game – from deck construction and sideboarding, through to the final point of damage. A plan for victory becomes the framework for making strategic and tactical decisions, and without a plan you can make a large number of “good” plays and still end up with a bad result – often from drawing that Predatory Focus and realizing that those favorable creature trades you made have turned it into a dead card.

Hugs ‘til next time,