The Wrong Equation: Lessons Learned from a Failed Solution Deck

I had it. I had the solution to the entire metagame question. Ravager Affinity? Check. Goblins, any style, Patriarch’s Bidding or no? Check. Tooth and Nail? Check. Red/White? Check. All the testing I had done for the past few weeks was about to bear fruit. With none of the major matchups worse than 50% pre-board and none worse than 55% post-board, I was invincible. I would kick tail and take names for the tournament report I would invariably write after my stunning victory.

I had it. I had the solution to the entire metagame question.

Ravager Affinity? Check. Goblins, any style, Patriarch’s Bidding or no? Check. Tooth and Nail? Check. Red/White? Check. All the testing I had done for the past few weeks was about to bear fruit. With none of the major matchups worse than 50% pre-board and none worse than 55% post-board, I was invincible. I would kick tail and take names for the tournament report I would invariably write after my stunning victory.

…Yes, I can be a cocky little punk at times.

Nothing later on will make sense without a decklist, so here it is.

Black/White Clerics (no stupid name this time)

Creatures: 30

4 Dark Supplicant

4 Daru Spiritualist

3 Foothill Guide

2 Leonin Abunas

3 Leonin Elder

3 Nova Cleric

1 Planar Guide

4 Rotlung Reanimator

1 Scion of Darkness

3 True Believer

2 Weathered Wayfarer

Artifacts: 8

4 Lightning Greaves

4 Skullclamp

Land: 22

4 City of Brass

4 Starlit Sanctum

1 Unholy Grotto

8 Plains

5 Swamp


3 Altar’s Light

4 Disciple of the Vault

2 Ensnaring Bridge

1 Foothill Guide

1 Leonin Elder

1 Nova Cleric

2 Stabilizer

1 True Believer

Most of the listing should be fairly obvious (think of the popular decks in the format, and chances are, there’s a one-drop Cleric ready to do something about it), but I do want to make a few notes. The deck is a hybrid of the Dark SupplicantScion of Darkness build and the seemingly crazy Spiritualist-Greaves-Sanctum combo build. True Believer is far more valuable than the three slots he received in the maindeck would indicate. He’s Ivory Mask for two less mana, and he comes with an efficient 2/2 body to boot. He tells Goblin Sharpshooter to go sit in the corner, and Disciple of the Vault does nothing useful. The last True Believer came in from the board for almost every matchup, but I did not want to skimp much more on the maindeck hate cards for the format. The lone Planar Guide is in the maindeck for Tooth and Nail; while Wrath of God would do much the same job against a Platinum AngelLeonin Abunas duo, I preferred the Guide for his ability to act as a bad Fog or Aether Snap, not to mention his habit of sticking foreign objects into the back of his head.

For this article’s uncreative schtick, I have decided upon”Nine Lessons.” Two will come from outside the tournament, and seven will come from within, coinciding conveniently with the seven rounds I played at Regionals.

Lesson #1: Online testing cannot fully substitute for real-life play.

At least some of you can attest to the joys of Magic Online. Unable to support an on-line habit as well, I used Apprentice as a substitute for practice in cyberspace. Don’t get me wrong. Practicing online is wonderful when there’s nobody else around, and my playing strength improved greatly after online games. There is, however, one small detail where Magic with a computer differs from real world Magic: the shuffle.

That little”shuffle your library” button or command is really convenient, isn’t it? One or two mouse-clicks or keystrokes and your library is automatically randomized. It sure beats riffling and pile shuffling… and that is the problem. Humans are not perfect creatures when it comes to shuffling. Despite riffle shuffles and pile shuffles, patterns still form and still exist, often involving clumps of land skewing its distribution in the deck. Being notoriously poor at shuffling, I should have been very aware of the odd nature of randomization in a face-to-face game, but I failed to keep it in mind. All the online testing I did reinforced a very particular manabase, which was fine for the digital world, but not this one.

Someday, a company may produce a pocket-size auto-randomizing shuffler like the ones used at major casinos in Las Vegas. Until then, we are very much stuck with human shuffling and its consequences. Don’t be caught off-guard.

With that out of the way, we’re on to the tournament and the other seven lessons.

Lesson #2: To build a solution deck, one must first have the right metagame equation.

Without a Friday Night Magic location within an hour’s drive, most of my metagame information came from Internet reports on other Regionals around the globe. I used these predictions (Ravager, Red-White, Tooth and Nail, and Goblins, in that order) for my solution. It was a major mistake.

Columbus, Ohio is not Dresden, Germany or Santiago, Chile. The metagame in the United States is somewhat different from that in the rest of the world. Here in the U.S., Ravager had become so dominant that some players had resorted to playing decks with more hate than (insert your politically incorrect target of choice here). Ravager would die to them, but most other decks would defeat the hate deck. Note the term most…

Round 1

Opponent: Matt Sempsel

Deck of Choice: R/G Beasts

I checked my opening hand. It contained two Skullclamps, three one- toughness clerics, a Swamp, and a Plains. I kept, thinking to draw into larger and better things.

“Forest, Birds of Paradise.”

According to my scoresheet, I recorded Mr. Sempsel’s deck as”The Player Haters’ Club.” It’s as accurate a name as any. A Naturalize and Viridian Zealot later, my Skullclamps were makeshift tombstones in my graveyard, and my one-drop clerics were curled up and waiting to die to the Contested Cliffs and Molder Slug on the board. I had one chance to escape when my opponent tapped out for a Ravenous Baloth and Hunted Wumpus, but the last combo piece did not fall into place then, and I soon died.

Sideboarding: -3 Foothill Guide, +1 True Believer, +2 Ensnaring Bridge

Game two was quick and dirty. Few decks can stand up to a third turn Scion of Darkness knocking on the doorstep, and Beasts is particularly ill-equipped.

Game three started with a solid enough hand. It had the potential for three 2/2 Zombies and a Scion attacking on turn 4. Unfortunately for me, my opponent had a turn 2 Stone Rain off a Birds of Paradise, and a turn 3 Molten Rain did not help matters any. Skullclamp never had a chance to draw cards, thanks to Naturalize, and the deck refused to provide land. I fell in short order. We signed our match slips and wished each other luck as we went our separate ways.

Matches, 1-2 Games

Lesson #3: No card is truly scary or frustrating until it’s on the other side of the table. Don’t dismiss cards just because they don’t seem like much.

A Foothill Guide doesn’t seem like much, does it? It’s a 1/1 with Protection from Goblins. Pyrite Spellbomb, Electrostatic Bolt, Shock… any of them could take care of the little pest, right? Besides, it’s not like he’s holding back your entire horde of goblins. He’s just blocking one.

At least, he’s not scary for a Goblins player until he is protected by a Daru Spiritualist or Lightning Greaves. Make that Goblin he’s blocking the 7/2 Goblin Piledriver you were counting on to win the game, and it’s more than frustrating. It’s downright obnoxious.

“That Foothill Guide saved your <expletive>!” It seemed to be a chorus for my next opponent. My only response is,”That’s the point.”

Round 2

Opponent: Randy Swain

Deck of Choice: Goblin Bidding

I was relieved to see a more familiar matchup.

Game one, a Skullclamp died to Shatter, but it was only bait. A Foothill Guide kept me from dying as Lightning Greaves hit the table the next turn, and my Daru Spiritualist tried on the shiny new shin-guards. One Starlit Sanctum later, my life total was in the neighborhood of thirty-four trillion. My opponent refused to concede, so I had to kill him the hard way with Starlit Sanctum.

Sideboarding: -3 Leonin Elder, +1 Foothill Guide, +1 True Believer, +1 Nova Cleric

Game two, all my Clerics gave their lives to summon a giant horned avatar of doom with no adequacy issues. No matter how scrubby it seems to play with Dark Supplicant, 6/6 trampling creatures that raid the opponent’s graveyard are scary on turn four.

(Amusing side note: according to Indiana law, the artwork on Scion of Darkness meets all criteria for pornography. Considering that this is the state where a man could conceivably meet the state’s definition of public nudity by wearing spandex while looking at some cheesecake (here’s your opportunity, Mr. Knutson!), it’s not so hard.) [Sorry charlie, all out of beefcake links for today. – Knut]

Understandably, my opponent was not happy about the Foothill Guides and said as much as we signed the match slips. I dropped the match slip in the results box and gave my solution some partial credit.

1-1 Matches, 3-2 Games

Lesson #4: Mirror matches happen. Be more prepared than the other guy.

Even among rogue decks, mirror matches or near-mirror matches occur. There was more than one White Weenie deck at Regionals; how prepared would the players have been if they were paired against each other? Probably not very much; how likely was each player to face a similar deck at Regionals? While not likely, mirror testing can also yield valuable information about the deck’s particular weaknesses. I experimented with the Black-White Clerics mirror match, and it bailed me out here.

Round 3

Opponent: Ryan Colantuono

Deck of Choice: Monoblack Clerics

Game one started with a Disciple of the Vault on his side of the table. I thought Ravager but checked myself. Why would Ravager play basic lands? Things took a turn for the worse with his third turn Rotlung Reanimator. If I Skullclamped a Cleric, he received a 2/2 Zombie. He had the Reanimator, and I didn’t. It was as simple as that.

Sideboarding: 3 Foothill Guide, +1 True Believer, +2 Ensnaring Bridge

Game two saw some interesting Rotlung-on-Rotlung action; the board was littered with Zombies by the time I drew the final combination piece. In an instant, I went from six life to six trillion. My opponent conceded in frustration.

Game three, I pitied my opponent. I had all combination parts in hand and the lands to cast him. He got as far as Grave Pact, but didn’t have enough creatures to sacrifice. I went to arbitrary heights on my fourth turn, the earliest possible for this version. Rather than beg for a draw, my opponent surrendered, signed the match slip, and wandered off in search of food.

I turned in the slip happily. Despite missing most of my predictions so far, I was 2-1 and still on track.

2-1 Matches, 5-3 Games

Lesson #5: Sh** happens.

I saw players getting frustrated and angry that they’d received two losses and weren’t going to Nationals. More than 650 players were at the Regionals in Columbus, Ohio. More than 600 of us weren’t going to Nationals. The odds, quite frankly, were more than slanted against any particular player making it. After eleven rounds, only the strong and insanely lucky survive. Sometimes, it just isn’t your day.

Round 4

Opponent: Adam Yurchick

Deck of Choice: Goblin Bidding

Adam was a very polite young man with zero compassion when it came to the finer points of the rules. I like that in an opponent, though not necessarily when I’m in the X-1 bracket, where each round will ruin somebody’s day.

Game one, my hand supplied a Skullclamp and plenty of targets, but a Sparksmith stalled out that plan. While I struggled to find a nonland card on top of my library, Goblin Piledrivers and their Warchiefs overran me.

Sideboarding: same as Round 2.

With my first-turn play, my opponent was calling a judge and asking questions, requesting that the discussion be kept out of my hearing. I covered my ears and closed my eyes until my opponent returned.

“Hi, I’m back.”

“Your question was about Foothill Guide and the cycling-triggered ability of Gempalm Incinerator, and the answer was negatory.”

“…You know way too much about this matchup.”

“I’ll take that as a compliment.”

The question ended up being moot; without the protection of a Spiritualist, two Foothill Guides fell to two Electrostatic Bolts and I was goblin food. We parted amicably and I began to wonder if I’d found the solution after all.

2-2 Matches, 5-5 Games

Lesson #6: Draws beat losses.

It sounds obvious, but how often have you had the choice between following a safe path and following a dangerous one in Magic? In Game 3, when everything is on the line, many decks have the opportunity to”play it safe” and go for a draw or play aggressively for the win. Many players I know will always play to win, regardless of their own chances. I try to look for a draw when time pressure is on; if I can win, I will play for the win, but as a rule, I refuse to throw points away if I can hang onto a draw. I’m not immune to false hope, but I am somewhat resistant.

Round 5

Opponent: David Greenwald

Deck of Choice: Goblins (no Bidding)

Game one, taking six points of pain from various Cities of Brass were worth it when a Scion of Darkness crashed the party on turn 5, taking the game.

Sideboarding: same as round 2.

Game two, my opponent took the offensive, striking quickly with two Goblin Piledrivers granted haste by a Goblin Warchief on turn 3. My deck folded like valet laundry.

Game three promised to be more of the same, until I drew a Skullclamp to go with the Daru Spiritualist and Starlit Sanctum I had. It wasn’t Lightning Greaves, but converting one cleric and two mana into two cards and one mana into two extra life wasn’t a bad deal at all. Unfortunately, staying alive this way meant I was unable to launch an offensive. The game ended inconclusively, with my life total hovering at thirty-seven.

2-2-1 Matches, 6-6-1 Games

Neither of us wanted a draw, but there wasn’t any reason for either of us to take the loss. He clearly had the upper hand by the end, but I managed to hang on. Our observing judge toted the match slip himself, and with our entry into the computer, the next round was ready.

Lesson #7: If it’s not in the metagame, it’s not a threat.

This is something of a corollary to Lesson #2. It’s a very true statement, and if you’re trying to build a metagame deck, it’s an axiom that must be taken to the fullest. Unfortunately, solution decks have a minor problem with tournaments such as Regionals (and to a greater extent, States). The tournament is going to have its oddities. Players will refuse to follow the”logical” path. Some will use the tournament as an excuse to try out an odd new idea. Others will succumb to paranoia about a particular deck and sideboard hate for it, even though nobody within ten miles is playing with it. Be ready for as many weird occurrences as you can.

There’s a reason why most of the solution decks ever created appeared at Pro Tours or Grand Prix events, piloted by hardened professionals. They have been rigorously tested for a well-defined metagame where the influence of rogue decks is going to be minimized and have been played to near-perfection. It may not be possible to build a solution for a wide-open tournament such as States or Regionals.

Round 6

Opponent: Mark Smith

Deck of Choice: TwelvePost

Game one gave me a very nice pair of Rotlung Reanimators and the right land to cast them. My opponent’s Oblivion Stone took them out, but not before handing me eight Zombie tokens on a silver platter. Things were looking up, with my opponent at six life, when he cashed in with Cloudpost number three leading to a Tooth and Nail with entwine. My prayers for stupidity on his part went unanswered, as he fetched a Darksteel Colossus and Platinum Angel. A few turns later, I died, nowhere close to a Planar Guide or combination draw.

Sideboarding: -3 Foothill Guide, -2 Nova Cleric, +3 Altar’s Light, +2 Ensnaring Bridge

Game two gave me a Daru Spiritualist, Lightning Greaves, and Weathered Wayfarer with a Plains. I’ll go to thirty-four trillion life, thank you very much. My opponent played for the Platinum AngelLeonin Abunas duo, but I plugged on, dropping my opponent to negative one life.

“You do know that I don’t die, right?”

“Yes, I do.”

Naturally, my Planar Guide was hiding out four cards from the bottom. I laid him and played his ability. He exited the game and took everyone else with him.

“Good game,” I commented, extending my hand. He refused it.

“I don’t die.”


“I don’t die.”

With I sigh, I called for a judge.

“All right, here’s the situation. My opponent has Platinum Angel and Leonin Abunas in play, with an untapped Oblivion Stone and piles of mana. I have just played Planar Guide…”

“Do you have an English copy of Planar Guide?”

I looked down at the Japanese Planar Guide beneath my finger.”God, I hope so.”

Fortunately, I had one in my trade box, which I produced within fifteen seconds. Consider this a mini-lesson: foreign-language cards are cool, but most judges aren’t fluent in all nine of Magic’s languages. Take English cards with you to the tournament!

The ensuing discussion, which took far longer than it should have, added up to”Platinum Angel does not protect you if she is not in play, you will lose as soon as someone has priority, your Oblivion Stone can’t do anything because removing Planar Guide from the game is a cost, and no, the ability does not require the Planar Guide to tap.” Eventually my opponent conceded and we went on to game three.

Mini-lesson number two: if you’re playing, know what your cards do and read your opponent’s cards. It’s not a hard step, but you’d be surprised by the number of players online who would try to sacrifice all their permanents to the Disciple of the Vault for lethal life-loss, only to be told that the True Believer meant I lost nothing at all.

Game three gave me quite the promising hand. Two Swamps, a City of Brass, two Dark Supplicants, and two Rotlung Reanimators stared back at me. It was unconventional, but what was the harm?

My opponent’s turn 1 play was Spreading Algae. I began cursing out loud in Latin. (For the record, never call anyone who knows Latin a”filius canis” or”fututor matris.” Just saying…)

Naturally, the deck delivered five relatively expensive White cards off the top, and I died in short order.

2-3-1 Matches, 7-8-1 Games

Who plays with Spreading Algae? Logically, the only possible major deck it would be good against would be Death Cloud, and it wasn’t all that big. It was part of another solution to another faulty equation. Unfortunately for me, it was perfectly positioned to take that hand down, and I had no way to know it was coming.

Lesson #8: Not losing is not enough.

Of all the infinite combinations out there, infinite life is the weakest. It can be trumped by infinite damage, milling, or an alternate win condition, so be on the lookout if you’re playing this”soft” kind of infinite combination deck. Of course, if there is no milling or infinite combo deck in the format, you’re almost safe… almost.

Round 7

Opponent: Sean V. Kirkpatrick

Deck of Choice: Power Conduit (as seen on the Wizards of the Coast site)

I did not expect to see this. [Can’t… stop… laughing! – Knut, really appreciating this article]

Game one, my hand looked promising, but a Chalice for one locked out one-third of my deck. Another Chalice, this one for two, shut down eleven more cards. I had exactly seven spells I could cast in my deck, and a Forgotten Ancient growing bigger all the time. I was forced to surrender. As I sideboarded, I wondered how my opponent had managed to get a record equivalent to mine… I mean, this sort of deck wasn’t supposed to get match wins, was it?

Sideboarding (very random): -3 Foothill Guide, -3 Nova Cleric, +3 Altar’s Light, +2 Ensnaring Bridge, +1 True Believer

Game two, two Chalices met with two Altar’s Lights. I had the infinite combination in hand, and all was good.

Then my opponent played Darksteel Reactor, and it was on to plan B: find the last Altar’s Light or drain the opponent out before it reached twenty counters. Draining worked for a time, until a Coretapper-rigged Sun Droplet meant the Sanctum’s life loss was ineffectual. After that, I had four card draws, and naturally, the Altar’s Light was the fifth card down.

2-4-1 Matches, 7-10-1 Games

I wished him luck and watched him leave with a sigh.

Lesson #9: There are more important things in life than Magic.

At this point, I was 2-4-1, with no shot at any prizes. It was 8:15 P.M. and I wasn’t the driver. I could play four more rounds and cut into the sleep time of my ride and myself, or I could call and get a ride back to the motel, eat, swim in the pool, take advantage of the high-speed Internet, and get to bed at a decent hour.

I dropped from the tournament. Some things really are more important than Magic.

So, what did I learn from all this?

Breaking down all the twists and turns the deck took at Regionals, a few key points stood out. I thought I had the proper metagame laid out, but I didn’t. I had neglected the Red/Green Beasts deck, which turned out to have more players than the Red/White decks I maindecked hate against. That failure came to bite me in round one.

My expected metagame was:

30% Ravager

25% Goblins (both Bidding and Bidding-less)

20% Tooth and Nail

10% Red-White

15% Rogue

While what I ended up facing was:

43% Goblins

14% TwelvePost

14% Red-Green Beasts

29% Rogue (grouping Clerics and Power Conduit)

Did I make a mistake? I think so, but not as big a mistake as it might seem. The actual field overall at Regionals had at least 40% Ravager. I missed the Beasts deck, but the numbers for Goblin Bidding and Tooth and Nail decks in the field were about right. Red/White and Rogue were in lower numbers than expected. Obviously, my experience was nowhere near the statistical norm; perhaps I was just unlucky. Then again, when I decided to play Black-White Clerics as a solution deck, I was (or should have been) prepared to accept the consequences if I misread my metagame or the luck of the draw gave me something other than my predicted matches.

That’s about it. If you have any questions about the deck or the tournament, feel free to email me at [email protected].

Enjoy your game,