I don’t know who you are. I don’t know what you want. If you’re looking for a ransom, I can tell you I don’t have money. But what I do have is
a very particular set of skills â€” skills I have acquired over a very long career. Skills that make me a nightmare for people like you.
The skill I am referring to is brewing masterpieces.
There is no better feeling in Magic than showing up to a tournament with a home brew made all by yourself and taking it down. Nothing says, “f*** you
all, you don’t have a clue and I do” like laughing in the face of the metagame and taking it all down with your own masterpiece.
How do you do this, though?
Can you simply toss together seventy-five cards and win it all?
No. This is not ‘Nam. There are rules. Here are said rules.
1. Find Public Enemy #1.
The first thing you want to do when tackling a format is to figure out what the “obvious” deck is. This is almost always clear, and the deck is almost
always very good. Some examples are; Faeries (Standard), Tempered Steel, Zoo (Extended), Affinity (block and Standard), White Weenie (Kamigawa Block
and Time Spiral block), Caw-Blade, and so forth.
All of those decks basically built themselves â€” and they also defined the format. If you couldn’t beat those decks, then you couldn’t win the
So when brewing a new deck, the first thing you had to do in those formats was to beat the top dog â€” or as I called them, “public enemy #1.” If you
couldn’t do that, then it was time to move on.
Sometimes the decks would get so convoluted with maindeck hate that it turned into just a hate deck that could only win one matchup. Usually, this is a
bad idea but in some formats (READ: Affinity block), it was still viable because the deck was played so much. We will get into how you can have too
much hate a bit later, though.
2. Know the format.
So now you have a deck that is at least competitive against Public Enemy #1. Now it’s time to learn the format.
In the basic sense, this means “learn the decks and the cards that people will play against so that you can plan your games accordingly and rarely get
surprised.” But the much more important thing to realize about the format is what each deck’s “key turn” is.
What is a “key turn”?
A key turn is when a deck plays their most important spell, which results in you:
a) Having to build up a big board presence to counteract it;
b) Having to have an answer to it and being prepared with the counter or removal, or;
c) You having something bigger and better.
Some examples are Fae playing Bitterblossom on turn 2, Jund playing Bloodbraid Elf on turn 4, Caw-Blade playing Stoneforge Mystic on turn 2 or
Jace, the Mind Sculptor on turn 4 (why does that deck get two key turns? unfair!).
Other decks, beatdown mostly, just have a series of similar turns in which they increase their board position and are proactive in the sense that they
kill you before you can have your key turn.
So now that you have an idea what I am talking about you need to use this when making your brew. Can your deck beat turn 4 Jace? Turn 6 Consecrated
Sphinx? Turn 4 Bloodbraid Elf? Can you beat “artifact creature, artifact creature, Tempered Steel” on consecutive turns?
Once you get experience in this part of the brewing process, you don’t even need to play vs. all of the matchups. You just need to be aware of them as
your games are playing out (or as you’re drawing up hands and playing out your first few turns solitaire-style). Just think: what does this draw beat? If the answer is “not much,” it’s time to go to a new brew or make some more changes to this one.
3. Honesty is the best policy.
Many, many, many, many deck builders fall in love with their own brews â€” and as though it were their child, they can’t see a flaw in it. It’s
often easy to put blinders on and just scratch off your losses to a mulligan, missed land drops, your opponent’s nut draw, and so forth.
The problem is, those are all parts of the game of Magic. Those draws happen in a tournament, and the games still count â€” so why shouldn’t
they count in playtesting?
Be honest about how the games played out. If it seems like you’re always getting unlucky, then maybe your deck just doesn’t have enough power. For
worlds in Rome, I spent the whole time playtesting an Esper control deck that lost to Jund on about turn 15 every time. They just had more card
advantage than me and more staying power. For the longest time I thought my deck was good because I was “control.” If the games went long, then naturally the control deck wins! The only problem was that Jund was so good. It had so much card advantage, and its creatures were so good
that it rarely had to over-commit â€” which meant that it played the better control game!
All of my preparation was ruined because I refused to believe that my “control” deck could get out-controlled.
Mulliganing is another huge mistake that people make in playtesting. In the beginning, it’s fine to mulligan to seven when you are first playing a deck
so you can get some actual games in to see if your deck is competitive. However once it is worth putting time into you should be mulliganing to six,
and five, and four to see how consistent the deck is and how well it mulligans. If the deck is still winning games off of mulligans to five (or even
four) then you know that you can mulligan aggressively in the tournament. If the deck is always losing whenever it mulligans, then you know that you
have to keep sketchier hands.
A broad example of this is that beatdown decks traditionally don’t mulligan well, because their strategy is to use their spells as fast as they can to
kill you. It’s often their last spell that gets the job done before the opponent can take control of the game. As a result of this I kept numerous
one-land hands on the play or draw with my R/G beatdown deck at Pro Tour: Honolulu and won plenty of
matches from drawing out of it. From previous experience with beatdown decks, I knew that you almost always want to keep a spell-heavy hand, but you
almost always want to mulligan a five to six-land hand. If I hadn’t been mulliganing in playtesting all those years, then I would probably not have won
the Pro Tour.
It’s important to have your playtest games mirror your tournament games, and enforcing mulligans is a huge part of that.
Maybe your beatdown deck isn’t fast enough â€” or maybe your combo deck isn’t consistent enough. Gaining infinite life is fun, but have you ever tried to
draw a Leonin Relic-Warden, Sutured Priest, and a Phyrexian Metamorph with only Preordain to search? You never get them in play together, and are just
left with a deck of sub-par creatures (sorry, Conley!). When it comes to deckbuilding, you need a heart of ice that lets you hit that “next” button
when things get ugly.
Another time to be honest with yourself is when you’re throwing too much hate. For Pro Tour: Berlin, I tried a 4-Color Control deck designed just to
beat Zoo. The deck was always close and just needed a few more tweaks until eventually every last card in it was good against Zoo.
The only problem was that it was still only 60%!
All of the hate didn’t even result in an autowin â€” and since that was the only matchup the deck was centered around, everything else was horrible. I
kept my deck able to beat Public Enemy #1, but I wasn’t honest with myself when it came to knowing the format and how my deck would do against other
brews. I didn’t bother to think about how my draws would fare against Elves or Mind’s Desire. At one point Nassif tried to convince me to play his
mono-blue Faeries deck, but I refused because I had invested too much time in my brew. Because I wasn’t honest with myself, I passed on what was
definitely the best deck in the tournament.
The lesson there is that when you’re throwing all the hate, you can’t get blinded by one matchup. Even in the formats where that matchup is a huge
percentage of the field, it’s still important to remain competitive against the other decks.
Another important thing is to make sure that your deck beats what you think it beats. Having four Kor Firewalkers in the sideboard may seem like enough
to beat Mono Red, but you still need to play the games to make sure. So many times over the years people have been convinced their deck beat Zoo /
Affinity / Faeries / Tempered Steel because they had the appropriate amount of “hate” cards, so they didn’t bother putting a lot of time into testing
the matchup. You still have to play the games!
Just because you have some Katakis doesn’t mean that you’ll always beat Affinity. Don’t assume when it comes to matchups. Play the games and let the
results tell the story. If you have a lot of hate and are still losing what you thought would be a good matchup, then maybe it’s time to trust the
games and move on to a new deck (or at least rework the old one).
What happened in the games? Did their deck just have too much reach and was it able to outlast your hate? Did they have a better card advantage engine
to win the long game? Were they too fast for your hate cards and they just overran you in the early game? Were you unable to have a good answer to
their best card (Bitterblossom is a really good example here)?
If the games aren’t going your way, then ask yourself these questions and be honest!
4. Control is King
So you want to win the Pro Tour? Better sign up for a control deck.
In the top 8 of a Pro Tour, the matches become best of 5. Traditionally, control decks have much better sideboard plans than beatdown decks. Beatdown
decks are limited in their choices because they must apply constant pressure and keep their mana curve and synergy intact. All the control deck has to
do is stay alive. Also, there are always a ton of anti-creature choices, but there are not a lot of anti-control choices.
This came to my realization when watching Antonino De Rosa play against Mike Patnik in the top 4 of 2005 US Nationals. Ant was with mono-blue Urzatron
and Patnik was with White Weenie.
I remember thinking that the matchup was very close. I played WW in this tournament, having tested it a lot, and thought it was slightly in our favor.
However playing four games with Sun Droplet instead of two was just so brutal. When the beatdown deck has to side in answers for the control
deck, it never works out well.
Typically what happens in these scenarios is that the beatdown deck is a well-oiled machine. All of its cards work very well together vs. control;
rarely do they have strictly “reactive” cards like Doom Blade or Searing Blaze. Even when they do, they aren’t completely dead.
Control decks, however, usually have some expensive spells or cheap cantrips that they just don’t have any time to cast against beatdown. So on a scale
of one to ten, the control decks are siding out a bunch of twos and threes for eights, nines, and tens, while the beatdown decks are siding out some
fours for sixes.
Rarely do the beatdown decks have “I win” sideboard cards; the best in recent memory have been Blood Moon and Manabarbs. One of them doesn’t apply
pressure, is horrible in multiples, and can be worked around if they just draw some basics; the other is pretty high on the curve for beatdown decks
and can easily be Duressed, countered, or Celestial Purged.
Of course, this isn’t a definite rule â€” that would be too easy. Sometimes control decks just aren’t good enough to get you to the top 8 in the first
place. But when thinking about winning the tournament (and not just top 8ing), sideboard plans need to be strongly considered. Sometimes a deck is just
too good to pass up. My R/G deck at Hawaii had a horrible sideboard, and LSV’s deck at Pro Tour: San Diego couldn’t beat Jund in a five-game match
â€” but he still went undefeated all the way to the semifinals.
Were these decks bad choices for the tournament? No, but I don’t think either of us considered the five-game matches in the top 8 when deciding our
lists. That was a mistake.
For some of you, playing a five-game match won’t ever come up. But if you want to win your Friday Night Magic it is important to understand that
control decks have better sideboards than beatdown decks. Here is a more in-depth explanation.
A beatdown deck is full of synergy. Every card complements the other, and they’re all aimed at one thing: getting you to zero life as fast as possible.
Whether it’s fast creatures, burn spells, or cheap removal to get your blockers out of the way, efficiency is the key.
Now when you sideboard with a beatdown deck you almost always are bringing in more situational cards to answer their anti-beatdown cards (like Combust
for Baneslayer Angel) or you are bringing in disruption to slow them down (like Blood Moon against Twelvepost). In both cases, you’re going against what your deck is trying to do, slowing your deck down and becoming more reactive. You may still need these answers and disruption to
stop them… but your matchup almost always becomes worse after sideboarding because your synergy decreases.
Now a control deck is full of cards centered on separate parts of the game. You can divide the cards into early game / mid-game / late game. Preordain
and Doom Blade are examples of “early game” cards; they set up your later turns to ensure a smooth draw, or to try to slow your opponent down and buy
you those precious life points.
Day of Judgment and Gideon are mid-game cards. They help transition the game from your opponent being in the driver’s seat to you being in control and
dictating how the turns play out. They change the game from you figuring out the plays you have to make to stay alive, into figuring out the plays you
have to make to stay in control.
What makes a control deck so good at sideboarding is that in a lot of matchups, you don’t need to fight your opponent during one of these points in the
game. Your late game/anti-control cards aren’t needed against beatdown. So your actively bad cards get sided out for more removal.
In other words, your deck gains more synergy after sideboarding, while the beatdown player’s deck loses synergy. Your list becomes
more streamlined into just staying alive against beatdown or to winning the late game with more card advantage and threats against control.
Beatdown and combo decks can still be the best. But you want to make sure you play those sideboarded games so the control decks can have their shot.
5. Be Creative.
Still can’t come up with a good brew that will beat the format? Time to go deeper into the tank. Stop trying to tweak existing archetypes and brew up
something completely new. This is how Berlin’s Faeries, Paris’s Martyr-Tron, and New York’s Dragonstorm were discovered. Rather than start with an
existing shell of an already established archetype, these were made from scratch and pulled out of thin air.
Were there a boatload of other brews that got discarded along the way during the testing for these tournaments? Hell yes! But if you toss out a
hundred brews and one is broken, you still broke the format. You don’t bat for averages in Magic â€” it’s all about hitting one out of the park.
6. Don’t Get Cold Feet.
Unsatisfied with your brew the night before the tournament? Welcome to pretty much every Pro Tour player out there. Do you really think that someone is
going to ship you the best deck for the tournament the night before? Sorry, not unless you’re from Florida and friends with Antonino De Rosa.
Go with what you know. If you have spent the past two weeks playing with Tempered Steel, do you really think that your win percentages will be that
much better by switching to Caw-Blade at the last minute without having played a game or knowing how to sideboard?
I don’t get why people abandon a deck they know inside and out at the last minute. Sure, I have done it once or twice (and have done it to good results
before), but this all centers around you being honest with yourself. If you are being honest, and your deck is competitive, then experience
outweighs deck strength every time.
You also have to be kind of honest with yourself about your play skill. I have had Pro Tour Champions tell me they can’t last-minute switch because
they aren’t good enough to pick up a deck and figure it out. Very few people can do this and succeed. If your name isn’t Finkel or Nassif, don’t
7. Time Constraints.
Given an unlimited amount of time, you could test all of the possible cards and figure out the best list. However, you don’t have an unlimited amount
of time when testing for a tournament.
As a result, you have to decide which decks warrant time to playtest with. What are the staples of the format? Can your decks beat those? If not, time
to move on.
By the last week before the tournament, you should be set on your deck choice and tweaking those last few cards in the main deck and sideboard for your
problem matchups. I’ve often have scrapped what looked like a promising new deck (or an existing deck with a problem) because there wasn’t enough time
to figure it out. The Pro Tour was days away, so I ended up playing a stock deck that would be easier to tune given the shorter period of time.
Time is a factor when playtesting for a format, and you have to use it efficiently. Consequently this usually means playing rogue vs. stock decks
rather than rogue vs. rogue. The most important thing to figure out is if your deck can be competitive against the stock decks in the format.
Thinking about making a homebrew for Standard?
Better be ready for Sword/Equip on turn 5, an artifact creature rush followed by Tempered Steel on turns 1 through 4, tons of burn aimed at your head
complemented with fast creatures, the longevity of Birthing Pod and Caw-Blade running you out of gas, and U/B control Inquisitioning away your key
early drops and playing a fatty on turn 6.
Doesn’t seem too hard to break it, does it?