Yawgmoth’s Whimsy #71: Why My U/R Wizards Break Open Deck Wins At Least 80% Of The Time

I have playtested this for weeks, and it goes 7-3 vs. MWC, 8-2 vs. Goblins, 9-1 vs. Beasts and crushes Zombie Bidding.
Cool, huh?

Frequently, the deck is not cool. It is not even good. And it raises one fundamental question: If the deck is that bad, how did he get numbers that good? Is he hallucinating, or lying? The answer is neither; he probably got results like that because he violated most of the rules of tourney preparation. So let me show you how to do it right.

It’s near the beginning of another Constructed format, and the forums are buzzing with decklists and discussions. And a whole lot of the posts say things like:

Here’s my deck:

20 lands

25 playable cards

10 bad cards that fit the theme

5 fifteenth picks in the reject rares draft

Here’s the card-by-card analysis…

I have playtested this for weeks, and it goes 7-3 vs. MWC, 8-2 vs. Goblins, 9-1 vs. Beasts and crushes Zombie Bidding.

Cool, huh?

Frequently, the deck is not cool. It is not even good. And it raises one fundamental question: If the deck is that bad, how did he get numbers that good? Is he hallucinating, or lying?

He’s probably doing neither. He may actually have gotten results like that – but he probably got results like that because he violated most of the rules of tourney preparation. A lot of people do. I’m going to Grand Prix: Detroit this week, and I know I will violate at least two – possibly more. More on that later.

A quick aside: Many people will question whether I am qualified to write this article – after all, I have zero pro points. I don’t win major tournaments. However, I was on a team that sent multiple people to Worlds and Pro Tours, so I know how successful teams operate. I have also come close – I have a collection of T8 pins from highly competitive PTQs, despite the fact that I am a sloppy player. My mistake die is a d20. I also spend way too much time with work and other activities to be a first-rate spell slinger. In short, the reason I’m not on the Pro Tour is not because I don’t know how to get there, it’s because I’m too busy (rhymes with lazy).

So, for those of you who are not too busy, here are some simple steps to success at a major tournament, like a PTQ or GP.

1) Get On A Team

No matter how good you are, you cannot prepare alone. You don’t learn all that much playing Magic solitaire. You also can’t learn enough simply reading articles and posts. You have to actually play the game.

Playing random people at stores or online is a start… But you can waste a lot of the time playing bad players and/or bad decks. You don’t really learn anything by playing against someone who does not understand how the netdeck he copied works.

Having a regular playtest partner is a start – not enough, but a start. The advantages of a regular playtester, over just playing with random people, is that you can generally talk through problems, and playtesting becomes more than just trying to win. The important part of playtesting is learning how decks should be played, and what works. At many points in playtesting, I have laid out my hand and discussed the options available. In playtesting, I want to doublecheck my thinking, and see whether others agree with my decisions. The purpose of playtesting is to know what the deck can do, not to win individual games.

One major advantage of having a team is that you have more minds looking at problems. I can look at a particular point in a game, say Slide against Goblins, and discuss whether it is better to cycle or play a fourth land is a given circumstance. It is better to talk it over with your playtest partner. However, talking it over as a group, either in person or via email, is best of all. The purpose of playtesting is to learn successful strategies, and the more people there are working on those strategies, the more likely that they will be correct.

The second advantage to a team is to have more minds working on a particular problem. If you are planning to play a certain deck, but are having problems with a matchup, it helps to have a number of minds all generating ideas. Of course, having better minds and more talented players on the team helps, but we cannot all have a team like Your Move Games. Do the best with what you have.

The third advantage of a team is that you can divide up the workload. Preparing for a format involves background research, collecting cards, proxying up test decks, and the like. Even research benefits from a team approach. One person can only read so many web sites per day. A team can divide the web sites and have one person read Brainburst, TOGIT and Pojo, for example, while another reads Sideboard, MTGNews and YMGs. Each person is responsible for culling the chaff, and passing on links for anything worth having everyone study. (Everyone on the team needs to read StarCityGames, of course.)

Finally, the team can divide the major deck archetypes, so that each player is a specialist in one deck on the gauntlet. That person should play that deck close to half the time in playtesting, and that person should be involved, whenever possible, in discussing how to play out a particular position. There is no substitute for knowing, through having played, a deck.

I generally playtest with Ingrid, my wife. She is a level II judge and a solid player. I know that we will get the rulings right, and can reason through most any position and situation. However, our playtest”group” consists of Ingrid and I, usually playing at home when we get a few spare minutes. Between work, dogs, other commitments and our farm, we don’t get time to contribute to a team – so our team is the two of us. That means we cannot do enough research, cannot contribute enough ideas, and cannot master enough decks to really practice all the major matchups. In Standard, for example, we had time to practice the R/G-on-U/G matchup a reasonable amount, but not to really master Wake or Tog. We played them some, but there was no way to get a good number of games in – at least fifty or so in each matchup – so we were somewhat unprepared. To get enough time for playing in, you need a team.

2) Develop A Serious Gauntlet

After doing some reading and a bit of playtesting, the team should begin to develop a list of the major decks for the format. These are the solid decks that you can expect to see at any tournament. They also try to define the metagame and represent what you have to beat.

There are a lot of sources for ideas and decklists for the gauntlet decks. Generally, Constructed formats start with a Pro Tour or other high level tournament, and the decks that can win something like that are a solid place to start. Beyond the big tournament, look to web sites like StarCityGames – including the StarCity Forums – for other deck ideas. See what gets a lot of feedback, and what good players are saying. Once tournaments start, even lesser tournaments, look at what does well.

Once you do the research, your team should be able to develop a list of tier 1 and close to tier one decks for the format. This forms the gauntlet. For example, Ingrid and put together the following gauntlet (early on) for OnBC.

I also have my pet deck, but that’s different. We will also, time allowing, add Zombie-Bidding to the gauntlet, and we are de-emphasizing the Elves and G/W decks, which don’t seem to be faring well in our playtesting or elsewhere.

The decks in the gauntlet should all be standard versions, not teched out. If your team develops secret tech, and maindecks it, that’s great – but that tech should not be in the test gauntlet. In playing against the test gauntlet, you want to learn how your decks fare against the decks you expect to see. Until your tech becomes common knowledge, keep it out of the test gauntlet, or you will skew your results.

We generally proxy many of the rares in our gauntlet decks, but we do so with a scanner and color copier, so we recreate the actual card (as opposed to writing on the back of a random common with a Sharpie). Memory is a funny thing, and sometimes the sight of half-remembered mental picture of a position will help recall the correct play. For that reason, we like to playtest with real cards, or accurate proxies.

The toughest part of building a gauntlet is to make sure you have the right decks, and solid builds of the right decks. If you have the people, assign a team member to be responsible for one deck. That means that the team member is to research the deck, and determine the best general build, and make changes once it appears that the majority of the versions if the deck being played make that change.

The other benefit to having teammates to assign to decks is that they can learn the deck inside and out. That really helps – no, it is critical. I watched a friend prepping for Nationals; he was playing R/G against a Wake deck that another friend had just proxied up in pen on the back of some commons. The R/G deck was tearing the Wake deck apart, but that ended when I started playing the Wake deck. I was not an expert with Wake, but I had played it, and the other player had not.

Remember the bad post I”quoted” above? I don’t think that the poster lied – I think that he understood his deck well, and played it correctly. He may have been playing against marginal versions of the other decks, played by friends who may not have been all that skilled. That makes an incredible difference.

3) Choose Your Deck

The third rule is to chose your deck as early as possible, and work with it. You may want to play your version of a Gauntlet deck you were assigned. You may want to play something the team created, or your own creation. In any case, start playing it as soon as you can. You want to test it against the entire gauntlet, and test it a lot.

You may chose to play a netdeck, or build your own deck. Major netdecks have one big advantage – they have been playtested and refined by thousands and thousands of people, and have been subject to countless hours of playtesting and refinement. It is very difficult to match that kind of collective effort.

On the flip side, there is a lot of self-satisfaction in designing your own deck, and doing well with it. In many cases, you can do a better job of playing and tuning your own creation than something you simply read about. Home-brews also have one big advantage over netdecks – it is much more difficult for opponents to determine what you are trying to do with a home-made deck than with a netdeck. For example, in Standard, if you drop a turn 1 Polluted Delta, I’m thinking ‘Tog and moving into my predetermined gameplan against ‘Tog. If you follow that up with a turn 2 Forest, I’m going to have to change my mind, and start improvising.

Teams can develop their own decks, and play them successfully. A few seasons back, when I was part of a serious team, we developed a couple of decks. We had a version of Replenish a few weeks before the deck first appeared on the net – but we were missing the maindeck Duress that made that deck a force. On the flip side, we also had a couple of my designs that never did make the big time – and never should have. Those decks were dead ends, and dropping development of those decks was probably the right decision. Of course, the decks could have been world-beaters that needed just a bit of tuning and a few minor tweaks. We will never know.

If you are working on your own deck, the biggest question is whether the deck is good enough to be worth the effort. Some decks pay off: After a lot of work, they yellow-brick road to qualification. Other decks can never be good enough, but people waste their playtest time and effort heading down a blind alley. There are many more blind alleys than yellow-brick roads, but nothing beats that golden path to a win.

Part of choosing decks is fitting the deck to your play style and skill level. After playing for a while, you will probably find that the decks you like best, and that give you the best results, have some things in common. In my case, I am not a beatdown player. I have never liked Sligh or Goblins, and never enjoyed playing them. I am also not patient enough to be a really good control player. Instead, I prefer decks that have some solid creatures, removal and control elements, and some combo or search components. For instance, I loved G/B Survival of the Fittest, and had great success with it. That’s my type of deck.

Playtesting may also reveal other problems with some decks. For example, in playtesting Standard, I learned that I really liked Wake, and could play it pretty well. However, I get sloppy if I play too quickly, so I have to play decks like Wake fairly carefully. That made control on control match-ups, like Wake-on-Wake and Wake-on-Tog, very slow. With fifty-minute rounds, I was very likely to end up in the draw bracket – which would mean I would be playing more control-on-control matchups for the rest of the tourney and getting more draws. That’s a bad thing.

One final note: Play the deck you feel most comfortable with. I cannot stress this enough. It does not matter what the conventional wisdom calls the best deck – if the deck doesn’t fit your style, or you haven’t practiced with it, you won’t win. At Origins, I watched and played games in a number of formats. In match after match, I watched people with janky decks they knew well smashing solid netdecks that were badly played and/or badly tweaked. A reasonable deck, if played well, will generally beat a better deck played poorly. So play the deck you know best, and feel most comfortable with.

4) Play Everything, A Lot, And With Sideboards

Once you have chosen your deck, play it a lot. Play the other decks, too. As part of a team, I think that you should divide playtesting into thirds. Play about one-third of your games with the gauntlet deck you have been assigned, playing the base version, letting your teammates test their decks.

Play the second third of your games with the other gauntlet decks, against other gauntlet decks or people’s own decks. It is important to understand what other decks are trying to do, and what strategies they may apply. This is especially true if you have a rogue deck, since other decks may mistake your deck for something more typical, and play accordingly. Even if they recognize that your deck is rogue, opponents may base their strategy on similar, more typical decks. Knowing how the netdecks play each other is valuable.

Finally, play a third of your games with your deck, against the gauntlet. You can also play a few games against your friend’s home-brews, but don’t play a lot of those games unless the home-brews look a lot like something that other people might play. Remember; you need to learn how to play your deck against the decks you are likely to face. If you play your unique deck against your friend’s special one-off, then you really aren’t practicing for anything you are likely to see in a real tournament.

Do not forget to play mirror matches as well; the one problem with proxy decks is that we generally make only one set of decks, so we often don’t practice the mirror match. Learning how to play the mirror in round two is not optimal.

The gauntlet decks should all have sideboards, and you should play a lot of these games sideboarded. You will play at least half your games at the tournament sideboarded, and probably more. You need to practice these games. (I wish I had more time to do this…)

5) Prep Before The Tourney

There’s more to this rule than is more than eat, sleep, shower before going. Food and sleep is important – big tourneys are long and boring at times, so food and sleep help keep you alert. Showering and deodorant are also important – especially for those around you. That’s the simple stuff – there’s more.

First, decide on your deck in advance. Most articles advice you to decide a few weeks in advance. That’s great advice, but I rarely know the metagame that well. However, you should know which deck – or at least which of two or three decks – you will play a couple of days beforehand. Put those decks together, including begging, borrowing, or buying the cards, a day or two before the tournament. If you are undecided, prepare a couple of decks, and have them ready when you arrive.

Determine your sideboarding policy in advance. For each deck you expect to see, list the all cards you want to bring in. Pretend you have unlimited sideboard slots. Then list what you would take out. That second step is as important. Make the two numbers match. Do that for every major archetype you will face. Now list all the cards for all the match-ups. Odd are you will have more than 15 cards. You need to cut.

Cards that are used in multiple matchups are most likely to stay. To cut cards, follow the following steps:

1) Cut cards that only help in matchups you already win, and that just make you win more.

2) Cut cards used only to sideboard against decks you think you are really unlikely to see.

3) Cut cards that only help in matchups that are going to be unfavorable, if the sideboard cards don’t really make it more winnable.

4) Cut cards that only help in a single matchup – then hope to avoid those matchups.

That should get you to fifteen cards. That’s your decklist. Now redo your sideboarding list, using the cards actually in your sideboard. Then memorize it – you cannot refer to noted from outside the match while sideboarding anymore.

Print out your decklists. Have your name, DCI number, tournament, and location printed at the top. Triple-check that decklist. Make sure that the names are complete and correct – remember, the second most-common penalty judges award is for incorrect decklists! The penalty is a game or match loss, depending on rules enforcement level. If you left cards off your list, so your list is less than sixty cards, those cards get replaced with basic lands. It is difficult to win with a match loss and a suddenly untuned deck. Avoid that – prepare your decklist in advance.

Getting the cards you need, in advance, ensures that you will have them in time for the tournament. It also means that people at the tournament are less likely to see what you are trying to get, and deduce what you are playing.

Next, check your sleeves. If you have badly worn, nicked, or scuffed sleeves – or have anything that anyone could consider marked – get new sleeves. (Even if they aren’t, start with new sleeves. They’ll get scuffed as the day wears on.) Take the new sleeves from the box and look through them. Sometime sleeves on one side of the box may have creases or a fold – pitch those sleeves, or, if a lot of the sleeves have a fold or mark, return the box and get another. Check the new sleeves. Then shuffle the sleeves together. Next, shuffle your unsleeved deck. Then sleeve the deck. The reason for the shuffles – if you lay out your deck and start sleeving with four of a particular card going in the first sleeves, and if those sleeves have some imperfection in the first couple sleeves, people who see that imperfection can pull those first four cards. That’s a marked cards major penalty, and seriously bad times. Shuffling the sleeves and the deck ensures that, if there are some sleeves with imperfections, they will be on random cards, so a judge should not find any pattern to the defects. If there is no pattern, you will generally get no penalty, or at most a caution and a recommendation to change sleeves.

If you have any concerns, get to the event early and ask a judge to check your sleeves.

If you use shiny black sleeves, and you tend to flip through your cards while holding them, the sleeves will get scratched. Lands and other cards that get tapped a lot may get circular scratches. Your sideboard cards won’t be so scratched. Between matches, change some of those sleeves around. Better yet, avoid those sleeves. Such wear patterns can tell an observant opponent what the cards are – or get you a marked cards penalty.

Shuffle your deck thoroughly before you arrive. Then check your sideboard, box the cards, get your tokens, paper, and pen together.

Get to the event location a bit early. Allow time for traffic problems, buddies oversleeping, getting lost, and so on… Sometimes TOs will let in a late player, but more often getting there late means that you are playing side drafts.

We generally arrive early (I get there very early, for a player, when Ingrid is judging.) I generally play for fun/playtest against anyone willing to play. However, I don’t play the deck I will play in the tourney. I play a gauntlet deck.

People tend to scout before tourneys – wander around and try to see what everyone is playing. For that reason, serious players try to avoid showing their decks, either by laying it out to write a decklist, or by playtesting. However, it is fun to mess with people’s minds by playing a different deck3. Ideally, if I am playing deck A, and deck A has problems with deck B, and deck B has problems with deck C, I want to be seen playtesting deck C. Maybe, just maybe, someone will make a last-minute change away from deck B – and I may have an easier day.

Given that this is what we typically did on the team – and still do, to some extent – it’s another reason I’m not big on scouting. I also try to avoid making serious changes the night before or morning of the tournament. The choice is usually based on too little info, and is usually wrong.

Oh, yeah – for those of you who skip articles and just look for decklists, I’ll include the Wizards, Break Open decklist. This should, of course, never be played for any reason. I have done no playtesting at all – this is just off the top of my head. And for those of you reading the article, and not just skipping down to the decklist, the following three statements are false. The two immediately following the decklist are true, however.

So here’s the decklist that I would play today. It is absolutely devastating. And if anyone qualifies with it, I’ll send them a foil rare of that person’s choice.

4 Willbender

4 Voidmage Prodigy (use the new picture)

4 Aphetto Runecaster

4 Dermoplasm

2 Visara

2 Arcanis

2 Mistform Ultimus

4 Complicate

4 Choking Tethers

4 Break Open

4 Carbonize

3 Temple of the False God

4 Flooded Strand

4 Forgotten Cave

2 Mountain

9 Island

Good luck, but luck should not be a factor. With this deck, more so that nearly any others I have seen posted, there is little question of who will win the match.


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