Watching The World Burn

Brad Nelson likes his lists green and midrange. So what led him to a crisis of deckbuilding faith? And is he really playing Mono-Red Aggro in Kyoto?

Well, that sure was a crazy Day 1 at Pro Tour Hour of Devastation! I don’t even know where to begin.

First off, how crazy was it that Brian David-Marshall got an emergency invite to the Pro Tour Thursday night and turned that into a 7-1 finish? I sure didn’t see that coming. Oh, and what about when Wizards announced that Owen Turtenwald, Reid Duke, and William Jensen wouldn’t be allowed to team together due to being “broken?” I, as well, thought it was strange to compare them to the Stoneforge Mystic preconstructed deck, but that’s Wizards! Finally, did anyone expect that promotional video with Maro? Seriously, I did not see the Eldrazi taking over the Gatewatch to battle against Nicol Bolas coming. How’s that work, anyway? All-in-all, it was a crazy Day 1, and I’m excited to see how it finishes up from the comfort of my hotel room. Oh yeah, I didn’t make Day 2, but at least my brother’s in good contention to win the whole thing!

So what went wrong, you say? Well, for starters, I didn’t actually write this article right after Day 1 of the Pro Tour. Actually, and I know this will blow your mind, I wrote this before the tournament.

I also don’t believe I’m prophetic, so much of what I’ve already written is most likely untrue. Well, me missing Day 2 is most likely correct. I’m currently sitting in my bedroom at our testing house during Magic Online’s downtime. Everyone else decided to do a draft, but I thought it was the perfect time to collect my thoughts and let y’all in on where I’m at. The answer, sadly, is “not in a good place.”

What the Hell Happened?

It didn’t start out like this. A week before I flew to Kyoto, Hour of Devastation went live on Magic Online, and I started drafting non-stop. The sun was out, the birds were chirping, and everything felt right in the world. I assume many others did the same, but I was the one racking up the trophies. One turned into two, then three, and finally I accumulated fifteen in no time. I felt great about Limited and turned my attention to Standard. The showdown at SCG Cincinnati just wrapped up, and even though there wasn’t much information to go by, there was just enough.

U/W Monument seemed to be the people’s choice, and for good reason. The deck had a good gameplan against many of the format’s mainstays thanks to Dusk // Dawn. The deck has the capability to grind for a very long time, which is a trait we can all remember Bant Company having. Players loved playing that deck, and I believe that was because of how long the deck could play Magic before running out of steam. U/W Monument was poised to be Enemy Number One, and I was already prepared to beat it.

We all remember the days when we compared this card to Tragic Arrogance, and the irony is not lost on me. Once you cast this card once, you realize it’s not even close to as good, given you don’t get to choose. Until now, the format didn’t have enough “go wide” strategies to play Cataclysmic Gearhulk, so it was left unused for almost an entire year. That was until I was looking through my cards to bring to Kyoto with the new format in mind. Not only does U/W Monument now exist, but this card is also probably great against Mono-Black Zombies as well. Sure, they get to keep one creature around, but so do you! You just need to find the home.

There aren’t many decks I could think of that could support this card, but there was at least one: Mardu. Fumigate has been a staple in this deck’s sideboard for some time, but it didn’t seem like it was that necessary anymore. Everyone knows it’s coming and thus plays around it. Why not at least give something new a try and do that “Brad Nelson” thing by sidestepping everyone’s sideboard plans? I sleeved up a couple of Cataclysmic Gearhulks and started my testing with Mardu Vehicles against U/W Monument.

I need to keep this article family-friendly, so I will just say that this card performed “admirably.” It did everything I wanted and more. Not only was the body way more relevant than I thought, given why it was in the deck to begin with, but the damage this card did to both Zombies and U/W Monument was, how shall I say, catastrophic. The card was amazing, and I was pretty sure I had my deck. Mardu Vehicles was testing really well, and I’d happily play the deck at the Pro Tour given my metagame predictions.

It was time to take a break from testing and go play in a Japanese Grand Prix for the very first time. The points didn’t really matter for me, but it would be great testing going into the Pro Tour where a strong finish could get Team Genesis to Worlds. My Sealed deck wasn’t anything special, but it did net me a 7-2 finish, losing to two very good decks. I even got to play a handful of some of the best games of Magic I’ve experienced in my career in the game.

At that point, though, even a 6-0 would most likely leave me on the outside looking in for making Top 8. Sure enough, I won both of my drafts thanks to all my Limited preparation on Magic Online, but it could only get me an eleventh-place finish. I wasn’t bummed at all though. I guess it’s difficult to be that sad when you won your last Grand Prix. We’ll get ’em next time. Now back to Constructed testing!

“Hey, have you seen this new God-Pharaoh’s Gift deck I just lost to?” – Reality

“No, I can’t say that I have seen this deck, but we should really build it.” – The Beginning of My Undoing

No, I did not play God-Pharaoh’s Gift at the Pro Tour, for those who are curious, but this question will become the catalyst for one of the most frustrating Pro Tour testing weeks of my life.

Data is a unique resource when it comes to Pro Tour testing. External data is minimal, which complicates its use. Magic Online now only shows five 5-0 lists a day, and most of them aren’t useful at all when it comes to my preparation, but it’s difficult to know how much it will influence other players. The decklists from the SCG Tour are more useful, but they become outdated quickly. Again, I will begin to evolve my own testing to quickly invalidate much of this information, but I have no clue if the same goes for others.

Now, internal data is a whole other beast. You can keep track of matchups, but that information is only useful in the short-term as well. Decks begin to get updated as new threats become known, and all of a sudden a 50-game set between two decks may become useless now that one of the decks have shifted a decent amount of cards around. Sometimes it’s in the maindeck, but mostly it’s how drastically a sideboard can fluctuate.

Take this U/W God-Pharaoh’s Gift deck, for example. Now that it exists, there’s a good chance people start playing Dispossess again. Maybe I should too? Now that Mardu Vehicles has that card in its sideboard, do I have to rethink my approach to the U/R Control matchup? Now it might be more important to build my strategy around getting them to tap out for Hour of Devastation instead of mitigating it. Now I might not want that Painful Truths in the sideboard, but that now changes the way I will sideboard against four different decks on the play.

This rabbit hole is my hell. I didn’t choose it; it chose me. I spend hour upon hour in testing going back and forth over card choices, manabase decisions, and even removal suites to get Mardu Vehicles where I want it. It takes almost two whole days, but finally I’m back to liking my list, and my plans.

“It’s now not beating Mono-Red.”

“Are you kidding me?!?”

I sit down against Mono-Red, but this time a much more refined version of the deck. All of the “bad” cards we saw people playing last week have now been replaced. Many members of our team are liking the deck and have spent a few days perfecting it. It shows. I just keep getting beaten by the deck over, and over again. My once-good sideboard plan of sweepers is now getting beaten by their new top-end. Just like Mardu Vehicles, Mono-Red has found a great sideboard plan to sidestep the opposition’s plan and go over the top. I lose, and I lose, and I lose.

I make drastic changes to my deck.

It barely looks the same anymore, but the results don’t change. I still keep losing to a deck I “should” beat on paper. Declaration in Stone was meant to be good against Zombies but also kill Hazoret the Fervent. Sadly, things never lined up that way. The Mono-Red deck is just too resilient to removal thanks to all its haste, too powerful thanks to its mythic rares. It even has great trumps like Abrade for my best cards.

Nothing in the Mardu Vehicles colors seem to be good enough to stop this deck. The same can be said for many of the decks we put up against the deck. Now it’s clear to see that Mono-Red isn’t just a deck you can beat with enough hate. A few decks have an inherently good matchup against the strategy, but everything else is just getting beaten over, and over, and over again.

This changes everything. Do other people know Mono-Red is this good? If so, and we want to play the deck, how will we get the cards? What if we are missing something others will find easily? What if they won’t? Will people think they can beat the deck, but can’t? Will they think they can beat the deck, but can? What if everyone plays the deck? Should we make the deck good for the mirror? Can we? I don’t know how to express how frustrating it can be to see all of your hard work go up in smoke, yat at the same time have no clue how to proceed. The clock is now ticking, and you find yourself trapped in the abyss of cyclicity.

It’s always difficult to predict what others will do, even when you know what information they have. That said, it’s impossible to know sometimes if you’re ahead of or behind the curve. It’s vital information you can’t get. If you end up too ahead of the curve, you find yourself sometimes with a bad deck for the metagame, just like when you’re behind in technology. You’re always trying to find the answer to the metagame, but when information spreads too quickly, you’ll never know exactly where people will actually end up. It’s easy to predict there will be those at each end of the technology spectrum, but at what densities?

I’ve been here before, and if I continue to play this game competitively, I’ll be here again, lost in second-guessing and unsure of what to do. I do, however, always have a contingency plan for this situation. It’s not foolproof or anything, but it’s more correct than not.

Just Play the Best Deck You Have

Sadly, or not if you like the deck, Mono-Red is the best deck we have. It’s actually really good and may just be the best deck. In our testing, only a small handful of decks are good against it, and that’s only due to inherency. Nothing has seemed to be able to just add some cards to beat it and do so. I’m just a little salty that it’s the best thing we could find. It’s just so daunting to register for a Pro Tour with such a linear aggressive deck. Luckily, this one has very powerful cards that make it better than most hyper-aggressive strategies. The damage output is high with most threats having haste, and Hazoret the Fervent is a messed-up Magic card.

Who really knows. There’s a chance we are ahead of the metagame and respect a deck others do not. Maybe we ended up not finding things others did, and we wind up behind the eight-ball right out of the gates. Maybe the deck is just extremely average, and we have middling results. All I really do know is I’m not excited about the choice, even though it’s proven to be the best deck in our testing.

I guess my issues may lie within and not have much to do with the decks themselves. My fear and paranoia may just stem from green not being the best color anymore. I know I’ve had two years of Courser of Kruphix and another year of Tireless Tracker, but I’m still not ready to let go of my beloved green midrange decks.

I will, though, for the betterment of my team.

We need to hold strong and make Worlds. For that to happen, I need to win.