An Explanation For Why You Don’t Probably Invent Exciting Decks In Eternal Formats
Building decks is an important facet of playing Magic, and it often goes overlooked in an age where boundless free information is available at the click of a mouse. That pushes the emphasis away from building innovative new decks or technology â€” because players instead tend to fixate on garnering a sophisticated understanding of how popular decks interact with one another.
Granted, there’s nothing wrong with using the work that others have already done to enlighten your understanding of a metagame â€” but I’d argue that that simply understanding how Gerry T’s latest juggernaut matches up against the deck Brad Nelson played at the last Pro Tour will
give you that big of an edge at the next event… At least, not compared to the gain you’ll see if you take things one step further and actually tweak a list to be better positioned within an evolving metagame.
Legacy and Vintage, the Eternal formats, suffer from what I would call “meta-lethargy.” They suffer this lack of invention,
more than other formats for host of reasons.
They Don’t Get Played In Regular, Wide-Spread Tournaments.
Standard and Extended seasons are kicked off by Pro Tours, where the best and brightest deck builders are highly incentivized to innovate in a fresh context. Eternal formats, on the other hand, are always historically defined by years of dogmatic generalizations. Players assume that the pillars that have always existed and historically defined the format will continue to be true in the future â€” and this is a reasonable (though novice) assumption to make.
In addition to inheriting a format that appears stale from a deck building perspective, there is no PTQ format â€” which is to say there’s no large-scale, weekly worldwide tournament scene where players can watch decks evolve from week-to-week. Eternal metagames do evolve, but they have a tendency to evolve less deliberately â€” which is to say that they’re defined slowly and over a longer period of time. (Or, at least, that’s the perception that people tend to have.
Eternal Formats Suffer More From “Spoiler” Cards.
Eternal formats suffer more from “spoiler” cards that influence what deck builders feel they’re able to play. In the early days of Magic, the Power 9 were referred to as “spoiler” cards, because they were clearly better than other cards and severely limited what strategies could be viable… And this notion is still true to this day.
When a player decides they want to build a new deck in an Eternal Format, it has to be able to compete with the other, obviously synergistic, strategies that already exist. In Vintage, whatever a player builds has to compete with Mishra’s Workshop, Mana Drain, Dark Ritual, and Bazaar of Baghdad… And in Legacy, it has to match up against Goblin Lackey, Counterbalance, Dark Ritual, and Wild Nacatl.
I’m not saying that Jace, the Mind Sculptor isn’t clearly a format-defining card in Standard, or that Extended lacks its own pillars of power. But I
personally feel that the power of game-ending combos like Voltaic Key + Time Vault (or the speed of being able to kill on the first turn), are
more daunting metagame challenges to overcome when you’re trying to develop new ideas.
Eternal Formats Are Expensive.
Eternal Formats also suffer from the fact that the material cards are prohibitively expensive from a monetary standpoint. It’s understandable that a vast majority of players can’t afford to just switch to a new archetype; in Legacy, they own the duals to play Zoo, or in Vintage they happen to have made a significant investment in owning Mishra’s Workshops or Mana Drains, and will play with them regardless.
Again, this phenomenon certainly exists in Standard where a player buys four Jace, the Mind Sculptors and is going to be locked into playing blue â€” but in a year, Jace will rotate, and that player will move onto something else.
I played against people at the StarcityGames.com Power 9 series five years ago who were running Workshop, and they are still playing Workshop
to this day
. There’s nothing wrong with playing the same archetype year in and year out â€” but the main point here is that because many of the keystone Eternal staples are so expensive to acquire, there is certainly an incentive to play the same strategy repeatedly â€” which means players are disincentivized to switch things up and try something new.
Where Do Good Ideas Come From, And Why Are They So Good?
Good decks, like all good ideas, come from an individual’s ability to analyze a problem and discern an appropriate and efficient answer. Democracy is a response to tyranny, the Civil Rights Movement is a response to discrimination and oppression, and Rock’n’Roll was a response to bourgeois Americana.
In Magic, there are certain strategies that are abstractly known to be very powerful thanks to the information and theory that have been gathered over the course of years. “Ancestral Recall, Time Walk, Black Lotus and Yawgmoth’s Will” â€” “Time Vault and Voltaic Key” â€” “Mishra’s Workshop and artifacts that make it difficult for an opponent to cast spells” â€” “Bazaar of Baghdad and cards with Dredge” â€” these strategies are “good,” and that’s a known fact.
There are countless pages of theory written to describe why they are good, so I’m not going to get into those here. I’m just going to assume we all understand that these things are powerful, and synergistic, and move on to my next point.
However, the fact that a specific strategy is
powerful is usually not enough to win a tournament all by itself. There are a number of factors that also play into the equation:
First, it’s reasonable to assume that if a strategy is abstractly powerful in an Eternal format, then others will also have noticed and have already been playing these decks since as long as they have been legal for tournament play. There are exceptions to this rule: for instance, when a new and overtly powerful card comes out, deck builders have an opportunity to design a deck around the new card. Some examples of cards that enabled new archetypes include, Forbidden Orchard (Oath), the dredge Mechanic (Dredge), the “fixing of Time Vault” (Tezzeret the Seeker), Gifts Ungiven (Meandeck Gifts), and Thirst for Knowledge (Control Slaver).
Clearly, new printings have the ability to throw a monkey wrench into the established metagame because they create new abstractly powerful synergies and strategies that replace (or compete with) preexisting decks.
However, I would argue that for the most part, these kinds of synergies are fairly obvious, and are likely to be immediately noticed by lots of players. Identifying and building a new deck that is based around a new printing isn’t insignificant â€” but it’s not just as important as adding, say, Time Vault, Voltaic Key, and Tezzeret to a blue shell of a deck.
The most important thing would be
to position that blue shell to be good within the field I was taking my deck to
A synergy as powerful as “two cards = win the game”
going to get noticed and implemented by a lot of players even before there’s tournament data to back it up. So what ends up happening is that at the very beginning, a situation arises where it’s a reasonable assumption that the combo is going to be very good, but there is not yet an established “best decklist” for the combo.
Yet as soon as a few tournaments come and go, players begin to get a better idea of what the most useful way to abuse their new toys will look like â€”tournament results confirmed that Time Vault as a victory condition was very good in decks that played Thirst for Knowledge and Mana Drain.
That’s the simplest way I can explain how new pillars are added to the metagame. Building new decks from the perspective of being able to identify new “spoiler”-quality synergies and situate them into a deck that can best take advantage of them is the
way in that deck builders can invent a good new deck.
But the problem is that these are the type of innovations are likely to happen anyway! (Or at least are happening simultaneously, as the “innovation” you’re designing is likely apparent to not only you but everybody else.) Hence, it’s a mistake to build a Drain Tezzeret deck with the assumption that others wouldn’t also have figured out the same thing â€” the reasonable assumption would be to build a Drain Tezzeret deck that had a plan for beating other Drain Tezzeret decks.
The problem with “inventing” the obvious deck is because it’s so obvious, it’ll exist whether or not you invent it. Now, that doesn’t mean there isn’t value in building it, testing it, and tweaking it; rather, it means that Tezzeret was going to happen pretty much no matter what.
Innovation That Isn’t Obvious
Innovations that aren’t obvious tend to be the ones that really give a player the largest edge in a tournament. The reason for this is the consequence of a number of significant factors, all of which are extremely relevant:
Innovation as a function of metagaming
When I build decks for Eternal formats, I specifically design them to be played in one tournament. Many people fall into the trap where they believe that a Platonic build of their deck exists that simply beats everything because it is “the best deck that can be built.”
Wrong, wrong, wrong. Specifically, I remember shaking my head in disgust at the fifteen-page threads on
about building the ideal Control Slaver or Gifts lists, where players approached these archetypes from the perspective that there was some “pie-in-the-sky” way to build these decks that was always correct. Furthermore, they believe this “perfect” list could be recycled from tournament to tournament, and always
the best list.
The approach I have always taken towards deck constructing is to first make an assessment of what I would reasonably expect the metagame for the upcoming tournament will look like. You can predict that by looking at what decks and builds have recently performed well, and compare that with information about what decks have accounted for a given percentage of the field over a considerable period of time.
For instance, when I was preparing for Waterbury, I predicted that Workshops and Key-Vault decks with Dark Confidant and big Jace would be the most popular decks and account for a huge percentage of the field. It doesn’t take a genius to make such a prediction, as both recent tournament results and history would likely confirm this assumption.
The key is that if you can accurately predict that trend, and then find a deck that performs well against these two archetypes, it’s very likely that your deck will be very strong at that tournament.
A well-positioned deck is always better than 50% against the field as a whole. What I mean by this is that if we added up what percentage I would have against
every single player
competing in the tournament, my deck would be better than 50% to win… When all of these matchups were averaged together.
mean is that my deck is 50% likely to beat
every single deck in the tournament
. In modern Magic, it’s almost impossible to have a coin flip match up or better against every single deck in the room, assuming that the field is varied and represents a reasonable spread of decks. It’s reasonable in a Vintage tournament where the attendance is predicted to be over 100 players that all of the major archetypes will be represented to some degree â€” however, it’s also reasonable to assume some archetypes will be more represented than others.
My assumption for Waterbury was that Key-Vault/Jace decks (Owen’s champs list, Oath, and versions that were Mana Drain-heavy) would be the most represented archetype, making up about 30-35% of the field. I also anticipated various Workshop decks would be about 25% of the field. Just based upon this one observation, it was clear that if I could find a deck that performs significantly well against these two archetypes, I would have a better than 50% matchup against over half of the decks in the room.
With a well-positioned deck, the bad matchups are a function of good matchups. In order to position a deck with advantage relative to one or more set of strategies, it’s also reasonable to make the deck softer to other sets of strategies. It is by balancing these perceived play percentages that a player can attempt to position his or her deck within a given metagame.
For instance, the reason that most decks have such a low percentage against Dredge in game one is that because in order to have a favorable percentage against it in the first game, they would need to play with the linear hate cards that actually matter â€” cards like Tormod’s Crypt, Leyline of the Void, or Yixlid Jailer.
It isn’t worth the hit that it takes against the rest of the field to sure up game one against Dredge, because Dredge never makes up a large enough portion of the field to be worth it â€” instead, people assume they’ll lose to Dredge in the first game and then devote enough sideboard cards for it that they’ll be heavily favored against it in games 2-3.
Here’s a very unsophisticated and arbitrary example of this logic taken to the extreme: if I played sixteen efficient ways to destroy artifacts in a deck, I could assume my percentage against Mishra’s Workshop decks would improve drastically… But my percentage against almost everything else would likely to drop. Yet if I could accurately predict that 90-100% of the decks in a given tournament were going to be Workshop decks, then such a deck suddenly looks like a very strong choice.
The problem is that fields are scarcely so one-dimensional. Players almost always need to account for a wider array of decks, which invalidates such a single-mindedly focused metagame deck.
It’s much more likely that two dissimilar archetypes might account for a statistically significant chunk of a field â€” which is the exact case that I anticipated for the Waterbury event. My response to this hypothesis was to think about cards that were likely to be useful against both â€” or specific trump cards that would dramatically tip the scales in each matchup.
One thing I quickly noted was that when Jace, the Mind Sculptor resolved, it was game-warping in both matchups. The problem was that he was difficult to resolve against either deck â€” Spheres and Tangle Wires made Jace cost several more mana than I could typically afford, and opposing Jace decks likely had permission available by the time I had enough mana to produce a Jace.
But in games where I could quickly produce an overabundance of mana through Black Lotus, Sol Ring, and/or multiple Moxes on the play, I could essentially “cheat” Jace into play because I was generating mana and tempo well beyond a typical draw.
So the question then became: “How can I produce a bunch of mana really quickly?” I’ve had the pleasure of playing a lot of Lotus Cobras in Standard and Block constructed, and know how powerful turning a fetchland into a Black Lotus is â€” so the Cobra was the most logical starting point for me. Here’s the deck I eventually arrived at for Waterbury after testing primarily against Owen’s Champs list, MUD, and Oath:
- 1 Brainstorm
- 1 Vampiric Tutor
- 1 Mystical Tutor
- 1 Yawgmoth's Will
- 4 Force of Will
- 1 Necropotence
- 1 Demonic Tutor
- 1 Hurkyl's Recall
- 1 Time Walk
- 1 Ancestral Recall
- 1 Time Vault
- 1 Tinker
- 1 Voltaic Key
- 1 Black Lotus
- 1 Lotus Petal
- 1 Mox Emerald
- 1 Mox Jet
- 1 Mox Pearl
- 1 Mox Ruby
- 1 Mox Sapphire
- 1 Ponder
- 4 Spell Pierce
- 3 Nature's Claim
The Lotus Cobras (in combination with several Nature’s Claim) appeared to be a complete and total trump to the entire Mishra’s Workshop strategy, as they allowed me to cast my spells even through multiple Sphere of Resistance effects. The other important thing Cobra did was allow me to put Jace into play in situations where other Jace decks would never be able to play him against Workshops.
Against opposing Jace decks, I was able to cast my Jace much faster than they could â€” one particular sequence that came up with regularity in the Cobra v. non-cobra “mirror” was that I would resolve my Cobra, and my opponent would tap out for a Dark Confidant. On the second turn, I’d play a fetch land and have five nana at my disposal â€” the exact amount necessary to cast Jace and have Spell Pierce ready for either Force of Will
their next turn’s play.
The resolved Jace would bounce their Confidant, and my Cobra would attack â€” forcing my opponent into an awkward situation where they would have to use their next turn’s resources to cast Dark Confidant all over again.
The other thing I observed was that as efficient at Lotus Cobra was at allowing me to produce Jace, he was also adept at protecting Jace from being attacked by opposing Dark Confidants. My conclusion was that in a Jace mirror match, Dark Confidant was a deliberate trump for a whole multitude of reasons.
The last missing piece was the realization that with Lotus Cobra, I could easily cast Necropotence with my fetchlands. The highest priority in the blue mirror (besides ending the game with Voltaic Key + Time Vault, or killing an opponent outright) had previously been a resolved Jace â€” but a resolved Necropotence is straight up more relevant than even the Mind Sculptor. In fact, I didn’t lose a single game where Necropotence entered the battlefield â€” that’s a pretty strong argument for how valuable the card is, especially when you consider that I won well over half of my games on the strength of a resolved Necro!
Also, having three copies of Nature’s Claim, which were the stone blade against Oath of Druids and Mishra’s Workshop, which also synergized nicely with Necropotence. I feel that was a very elegant aspect of the deck’s construction. With a resolved Necropotence in play, Nature’s Claim turned into a “draw four” spell â€” or, more importantly, led to lines of play where I would Necro for an arbitrarily large number of cards, sculpt a hand of seven that could resolve Yawgmoth’s Will the following turn, and then Nature’s Claim my Necropotence during my end step.
Given how I’ve been talking about metagaming throughout this article, it makes sense that a deck was specifically set up to be good against Mishra’s Workshops and Jaces
have weaknesses to other decks. Specifically, replacing Mana Drains and Thoughtseizes with a two-mana creature is going to severely alter the deck’s matchup against storm combo decks. Against Ad Nauseam, I’d much rather be drawing disruption than a two-mana creature, and the fact that Trygon Predator pitches to Force of Will is more exciting than holding an irrelevant Nature’s Claim.
But in the way that almost all decks address Dredge’s terrible first-game percentage by going overboard with hate in the second and third games, I decided that the benefit of being so strong against Shop and Jace was worth sacrificing game one to Storm decks.
The other thing I noticed was that my sideboard was pretty much wide open to address the decks that I was bad against, because I really didn’t need to sideboard against Workshop or Jace â€” even after they brought in their cards for the mirror, I
felt like my Cobras gave me enough of an advantage to be the favorite.
Bonus Legacy Deck Section
Here’s another example of my Eternal deckbuilding approach put into practice â€” this time for the Legacy metagame.
I thought the most popular decks in a Legacy tournament would be Zoo and Merfolk. Traditionally, these have been extremely popular and well performing decks… So right off the bat, my approach to building a deck for Legacy would be to design something that crushes these two strategies.
Traditionally, people make the assumption that fast combo decks are the best way to defeat Zoo decks, since Zoo decks don’t have a lot of ways to interact with Dark Rituals… and traditionally, people assume that Zoo decks are the best way to defeat Merfolk, because they have cheaper and more efficient warriors, as well as an abundance of removal for Merfolk’s key creatures. In essence, the expectation is that there is a “rock-scissors-paper” relationship between Combo decks, Disruptive decks (Merfolk), and Aggro decks (Zoo).
Legacy deck choice revolves around a complex relationship of archetypes that are assumed to have favorable and unfavorable matchups. However, it’s possible to use this information to our advantage when designing a new deck, because we can position it favorably based upon a knowledge of what decks will be popular and unpopular.
If a very simplistic “rock-scissors-paper” might be assumed to be “Tendrils-Zoo-Merfolk,” and we expect that “scissors-paper,” â€” i.e., Zoo and Merfolk â€” will represent a much higher percentage of the metagame, one answer to such a field would to build the deck that beats Zoo and Merfolk, but potentially gives up percentage against Tendrils. Such a relationship would redefine our expectation of the three deck relationship by configuring itself as the “rock,” fast combo as “Paper,” and Zoo and Merfolk mashed together as “Scissors.”
The most obvious area where Zoo and Merfolk decks are similar is that they intend to use creatures (albeit different creatures) to inflict the majority of their damage. Therefore, it’s reasonable to assume that a deck that’s good at stopping creatures from getting through will be strong against both decks. The deck I designed for Legacy banks on this assumption about metagame percentages, and based upon the two 35-50 player Legacy tournaments I’ve played (and done very well at) in Ann Arbor suggests this trend isn’t a fluke.
If I were to play in an upcoming StarCityGames.com Legacy Open, here’s the list that I would play.
A deck like this is very, very good at defeating combat-based decks because it has an abundance of efficient removal (Swords to Plowshares, Bone Shredder, and Deed) and an absolutely crippling endgame that revolves around its ability to generate advantage in the mid-to-late game that is simply overwhelming to a significant portion of the field.
While such a deck is admittedly vulnerable to Counterbalance and Top, it isn’t particularly vulnerable to anything else that Counterbalance decks pack â€” thus, boarding in Grips and Extirpates fixes much of this problem in the post-board games.
Extirpate is also a useful foil to Life from the Loam decks (which it isn’t particularly vulnerable to, with nine basics) as well as certain combo decks. Having access to a full set of Red Elemental Blasts becomes useful against Burn and Goblin decks, obviously â€” but it also has crossover applications against another bad matchup in Charbelcher.
Do I think that the Reveillark deck I’ve proposed is the best deck in the format? Not specifically. It has a bunch of weaknesses that can be exploited, especially if people know about the deck â€” but the key is that I feel that such a deck, at this exact moment in time, would be extremely well positioned to do well at a big tournament.
One of the biggest misconceptions about deckbuilding is that in order to be a good deck builder, players have to constantly re-invent the wheel. They think they have to design a deck that is going to be a format-defining juggernaut for years to come.
Yet that’s not actually how it works. If a person builds a deck and it’s really good, the fact that it is very good in its
configuration almost directly equates to the fact that it will be bad in the future once people figure out how to beat it.
For instance, let’s examine the concept of the Zoo deck â€” which is loosely defined as “a multi-colored beatdown deck that plays the most efficient cards from an array of colors to kill the opponent.” How many different players’ Zoo decks have come and gone as being the “premier” Zoo list? It seems like there have been a billion.
The problem is that once a particular build of Zoo arises as being well positioned in the metagame, other players adjust to have a more effective game plan against it â€” this phenomenon predicts that varying degrees of aggressiveness, defensiveness, or disruptiveness from a Zoo deck would make it ideal (depending upon what other people are playing and what other players’ expectation of planning to beat Zoo would look like).
The long story short: if you’re playing the “Zoo list to beat,” defined as “the Zoo deck that recently won a tournament, and as such is the deck that everybody is preparing for,” you are effectively playing the “Zoo list most likely to be beaten.”
Even the seemingly “best” decks have overt weaknesses that can be tactically exploited by a savvy deck builder. There has been much discussion lately about the “hive mind,” and how it can function as a particularly stifling phenomenon with regard to new or innovative ideas.
Essentially, an overabundance of readily available information is
a strong incentive for individual players to develop their own ideas â€” a fact that’s especially true when a player can either play what Gerry T. has already proven to be good, or trust in their own, non Grand Prix-winning instincts.
It also doesn’t help that when a player has an idea, other players are often all too willing to tell them that their idea’s terrible, explaining not only why it won’t work, but why they’re an idiot for even considering it. I’d been developing the Lotus Cobra deck for two months, and almost nobody I discussed it with regarded it as anything more than DeMars wanting to play with his new pet card.
In Magic, other players, even teammates, tend to have a “Show me the money” attitude, where the burden of proof lies on the person with the idea â€” which is a mistake, in my opinion. I was excited about my Cobra deck, and the rest of my teammates who hadn’t tested the deck were all planning to play other brews. On the drive down, I kept telling them how insane the deck was, and their response was less than enthusiastic (although not outright dismissive).
I think that my off-the-wall ideas carry more clout, simply because I’ve been right about bizarre lists so many times in the past (Burning Slaver was 8
at Vintage Champs, Strategic Slaver was 3
at Vintage Champs, Steel City Vault was 3
at Champs, U/W Mulldrifter Control was 1
at the 100-player Meandeck Open, just to cite a few examples).
My point is that in
of the fact that I’ve actually proven time and time again that I can build a very good unconventional Eternal deck, that even my own teammates are
skeptical of my weird decks. It wasn’t until we all got to the hotel room and started testing, and the Lotus Cobra literally ripped the rest of the gauntlet of decks that they were considering playing in half, that the other guys were squarely on board with the deck being a very good choice.
If readers take one thing away from this article, I would sincerely like it to be this:
It’s okay to trust that your ideas are good
. Now, it’s true that after you put your theory into practice, things often won’t pan out the way you thought they would â€” but it’s actually important to at least test.
One thing I’ve never understood is why people take net decks to Friday Night Magic or the Weekly Vintage/Legacy tournament. There’s so much more to be gained by testing out a new brew, or some new technology, than there is in actually being a spike and winning thirty dollars in store credit.
The very act of learning how to brew, invent, and metagame good decks is an absolutely vital skill that â€” if mastered â€” literally translates to a higher level of success in the large-scale events that players
value winning. I like to use these small events as testing sessions where the most important aspect is learning new information, rather than walking into Friday Night Magic with a spike mindset where the most important thing is to win the event.
Everybody already knows that the deck that won the Pro Tour last week is good; at FNM, I’m much more interested in figuring out if I’ve built a new deck that can capitalize on the fact that everybody is going to be playing that deck at the PTQ on Saturday.
I figure that if somebody’s going to break the format, it might as well be me.
Hope you enjoyed the article.