Win More And Lose Less

Reid Duke talks about Birthing Pod at States and on needing to focus on what matters in order to win games, which is not what he did. Learn some valuable lessons in preparation for Baltimore Open this weekend.

Birthing Pod At States

Phantasmal Image copied my Acidic Slime. I sacrificed the Image to Birthing Pod, searched for a Sun Titan, returned the Image, and copied the Slime again. Venser, the Sojourner blinked my Slime and destroyed his last land. With no permanents on the battlefield, my opponent scooped up his graveyard and signed the match slip in a huff. The win put me into the 2-4 bracket.

Put your resources towards winning more games,not towards winning games more. Decide on a winning game plan, and execute it with as few complications and distractions as possible. Maybe I deserved two match wins for killing every permanent on my opponent’s side of the board, but that’s not how MTG works. A win is a win whether you completely dominate or whether you just barely claw your way to it.

This is the deck I played at States last weekend. In so many words, the story of my tournament was that I won when I stuck Birthing Pod and lost when I didn’t. That’s not the description of a very reliable deck, and it didn’t earn me a very good record over the course of the day.

My biggest mistake was my sideboard. It was divided between cute, situational Birthing Pod targets and reactive noncreature spells. Post-sideboard, I was still winning the games that I stuck Birthing Pod and losing the ones that I didn’t, so my sideboard didn’t really contribute anything. In reality, it just distracted me from what was important and ended up hurting more than helping.

“Win More” Cards

An important concept for deckbuilders is that of “win more” cards. Magic players quantify things in terms of the “card advantage” and “tempo advantage” that they provide. These measures are important as a frame of reference, but in reality the only thing that really matters is how a card contributes to changing a loss into a win. While “win more” cards often appear quite impressive, their primary use is to help you in a game that you would probably be able to win even without it.

Curse of Stalked Prey would look pretty good in the Mono Red Standard decks. Many games, it would add six or seven or more counters to your creatures. The truth of the matter, though, is that those are the games where you don’t need any more help to win. Curse of Stalked Prey is a “win more” card. What cards can help you when your creatures aren’t connecting? Overwhelming Stampede is a pretty powerful follow-up to Avenger of Zendikar, but your Valakut deck should be full of cards that help you to cast the Avenger in the first place, not cards that help you “win more” once you have one in play.

My Birthing Pod sideboard was full of “win mores.” If I was able to use Birthing Pod to chain through four- and five-mana creatures, my maindeck options were enough to win any matchup. I’d be sifting through my deck, deciding between Acidic Slime, Archon of Justice, and Hollowhenge Scavenger while my opponent was already scooping up their cards on the other side of the table.

Hollowhenge Scavenger was a particularly standout culprit, as he’s not even good to draw against Mono Red. He was only good when I was able to Pod away a four-drop, which doesn’t happen often in any game that’s still close.

Similarly, Stonehorn Dignitary does not belong in this deck or any other outside of M12 draft. In Old Standard, it was a role player because it could stop Splinter Twin from stealing a game that you otherwise had locked up. Now, it can be good in combination with Birthing Pod or Venser, the Sojourner, but in those cases it’s a “win more.” The bottom line is that it’s a dead card in any situation where the deck isn’t operating the way it’s supposed to.

Before the tournament, I was evaluating cards by asking two questions: “How good is this when I don’t have Birthing Pod?” and “How good is this when I have Birthing Pod?” While my first question was good, the second one should have been “Is this a crucial part of my plan A game plan when I have Birthing Pod?” There are a hundred creatures out there that are “good” with Birthing Pod, but the Birthing Pod deck is already so powerful when it successfully executes its game plan that most of those creatures are “win mores.”

Venser, the Sojourner was unimpressive also. He would have been better as something like Jace, Memory Adept that’s good to accelerate out and provides value all on its own. Venser was only really good when I had him with Acidic Slime, or when I needed to punch through a creature stall, both situations where the Pod deck is in good shape anyway.

Parallel to the concept of “win more” cards is that of “lose less” cards, which are much less talked about and harder to identify. Understanding “lose less” cards is critical for this new Standard format. A “lose less” card is just what it sounds like—a card that appears good in games that you end up losing anyway.

Take Ghost Quarter for example: your opponent resolves Primeval Titan and searches for an Inkmoth Nexus and a Kessig Wolf Run; you spend a card to kill the Titan, Ghost Quarter one of their nonbasics, and they search for a Forest. You spent two cards to (mostly) undo the immediate damage that the Titan caused, and your opponent is still up two lands. It’s better than nothing. Maybe one time in ten, you’ll be able to make a comeback because you had the Ghost Quarter, but we’re talking about a card that you put in your deck for exactly this reason, and in place of a better land! Ghost Quarter is a “lose less” card.

The biggest “lose less” card that I played at States was Gavony Township. This is not to say that the Township is anything but excellent as a card, only that it failed to change losses into wins in this particular Birthing Pod deck. I would find myself without a Pod, flooded out with lands and mana creatures. The Township would allow me to quickly build a sizeable army to defend myself or get my opponent down to a single-digit life total. Inevitably, though, Day of Judgment would show its face or a six-drop creature would come down, which no amount of 3/3 Avacyn’s Pilgrims could compete with.

What I should have done was cut the Townships for a Hinterland Harbor and a Llanowar Elves. By being disciplined with my manabase, I could have reduced my total land count, increased the chances of casting a turn 2 Birthing Pod, and made Mentor of the Meek even better.

Birthing Pod Recommendations: “Focus on What Matters”

This is my new recommended Birthing Pod decklist. Realistically, Birthing Pod’s sideboard doesn’t need to go to waste, but until I have something that’s reliable and tested, I’m not willing to recommend anything that could be a distraction from the deck’s main game plan. It could contain minor upgrades from the maindeck Pod targets (one-for-one swaps with creatures of the same mana cost), or it could be a transform sideboard to get an edge in one or two matchups or to dodge certain hate. However, at States I ended up hurting myself much more than helping myself with my sideboard. If I played the deck tomorrow, I would sideboard as little as possible, and if I leant the deck to a friend, I wouldn’t give him a sideboard at all.

I first heard the phrase “focus on what matters” from Zac Hill two years ago. Since then, it’s become one of the golden pieces of MTG wisdom. Figure out how each player can win the game, execute your own plan, and stop your opponent from executing theirs. With this decklist, I’ve focused on what matters; I’ve trimmed the fat, maximized the chances of a quick Birthing Pod, and increased the potency of the Mentor of the Meek backup plan.

The Birthing Pod deck is a nice, clean example of focusing on what matters because what matters, quite simply, is having Birthing Pod. Once you’re in the mindset of looking through the fog of details and distractions, you can begin to see what matters in Standard in general. I’d like to leave you with what I see as one of the key pillars in the structure of the format.

Consecrated Sphinx

Consecrated Sphinx is a format-defining card. It’s widely played, and games are often decided by whoever sticks one, regardless of everything else that’s happened. Combos, synergies, marginal advantages are all eclipsed by the shadow of the Sphinx. Every deck needs to be able to answer the Sphinx or put the game away before it comes down (one more obstacle for Birthing Pod decks to overcome).

Mono Red and Tempered Steel can win fast enough that they don’t need to worry about answering Consecrated Sphinx after the fact. Aside from that, every nonblack deck in the format needs to be built with it in mind. Green offers Beast Within, but Beast Within, quite frankly, is a bad card, and it takes a special kind of deck to use it. Wolf Run Ramp, because of its card advantage, trump cards, and Slagstorms, makes good use of Beast Within, but it shouldn’t be played in any other deck in Standard right now.

Black is not one of the more impressive colors these days. It represents half of Unburial Rites and Forbidden Alchemy and offers Liliana of the Veil—a card that’s very good but hard to use well. Aside from that, there are no appealing discard spells for the first time in recent memory, and even nonblack decks can play Dismember if they want to. However, the mere existence of Consecrated Sphinx gives black a niche in the format. Take a look at Jeremy Neeman winning deck from Grand Prix Brisbane.

I can’t help but think that a large part of Mr. Neeman’s success was always being on the winning side of the Consecrated Sphinx fight. He sports three of his own five instant-speed removal spells for opposing Sphinxes, eight counterspells, and four Snapcaster Mages to back them up. While Consecrated Sphinx is one of the nightmare cards for U/W Control, it’s downright bad against Jeremy Neeman U/B deck. You spend the whole game fighting to resolve your six-drop through his permission, only to have it answered one-for-one by a two-mana instant.

U/B Control has the edge in fighting over Consecrated Sphinx, but it has weaknesses of its own. I expect Solar Flare, U/W, and U/R Control to remain popular despite U/B’s success at Grand Prix Brisbane. Nonblack players simply need to be prepared. They should often let smaller threats resolve just to ensure that they’re ready with a permission spell when the opponent reaches six mana.

Playing U/B Control last season, I used to see Caw-Blade players keep Day of Judgment in against me post-sideboard for the sole purpose of killing Consecrated Sphinx. Answering Consecrated Sphinx at sorcery speed is a “lose less” play if I’ve ever heard of one. You need to answer the Sphinx before they draw two cards, or else it’s typically too late. I certainly recommend killing Consecrated Sphinx however you can, and somegames can be won after Wrathing it away, but if your game plan involves getting three-for-oned in a control mirror, you’re probably going to lose.

A notable exception to this rule is Karn Liberated, which is actually a respectable after-the-fact answer to Consecrated Sphinx. With no manlands in the format, Karn simultaneously answers an opposing six-drop and presents a must-answer threat. While I wouldn’t call it a defining card in the same way that Consecrated Sphinx is, it’s certainly an excellent card in this format and should be played in one or two copies by any deck that can support it. I was quite surprised to see Karn absent from Mr. Neeman’s U/B decklist.

Until black becomes a large part of the metagame, Consecrated Sphinx greatly outclasses the Titans and Wurmcoil Engine, which are already among the best cards in the format. Any blue deck that wants to compete in the late game should have three in the sideboard (if not maindeck) to bring in against nonblack decks, or even black decks if the opponent goes too low on removal after sideboard.

This weekend, I lost sight of what was important. All too many games I twiddled my thumbs with Gavony Township and Venser, the Sojourner until Consecrated Sphinx came down to show me “what mattered.” The games I won, I dominated and finished in epic fashion. The games I lost, I did some cool stuff that would never realistically be leveraged into a win.

What matters? Find the finish line. Don’t worry how far past it you can get. Don’t worry whether you lose the race by a little or by a lot. Just get there first as often as you can!