Bird's Eye View
Magic has come a long way in the past few years. Not only is the game outperforming any other time in history by pretty much every possible metric like sales and tournament attendance but the resources available to the community are also expanding enormously. If you're anything like me you've probably tuned in to a broadcast of one of the StarCityGames.com Open Series or maybe followed along at home with live video coverage of Grand Prix or Pro Tours. It's easy to forget that outside of PT Top 8s being able to watch Magic played live is an incredibly new phenomenon.
How awesome is that? Being able to sit home at your computer and just turn on SCGLive on any given Sunday and watch people battling it out? Being able to tune in to the watch not only the amazing top decked Whipflares by incredibly handsome and deserving gentlemen in the Top 8 of Pro Tours but also the drama unfolding round by round as that Top 8 was determined? Hell with the rise of live streaming Magic Online you can watch Magic from the comfort of your computer chair just about any time of the day any day of the week. Welcome to the future.
While I myself prefer consuming written content since I can take it in at my own pace more easily I think watching Magic being played is a much more effective way to learn for many players. It's one thing to read an article that tells you that you should play around Mana Leak in some spots but not in others and it's another thing entirely to actually see that strategy put into action in front of you. Magic Online videos are one great way to see this (like mine!) as are live streams (again—like mine!). But watching footage of a tournament played live can be a great way to learn too especially if there are good commentators.
I really enjoy doing commentary for Magic events. I started doing it years ago when Wizards still had a pro player in the booth to help do the Top 8 broadcast on Sunday at Pro Tours. I was pretty much a fixture in the coverage from 2001 until 2004 when I stopped playing (since I never made Top 8 myself back in those days!).
At first like anyone I was really bad at it. My inclination when a player made a play I didn't agree with or just didn't understand was to poke fun at it to try to get a laugh. I had a tendency to tell stories about my own experiences with the players decks and cards involved to the point that Ben Bleiweiss made a "Brian Kibler Bingo" board on this very site to tease me for my apparent narcissism.
I doubt it's still available anywhere but the best example of my bumbling around in the commentary booth came in the team Pro Tour when "Le Plus Class" made Top 4 featuring a then largely unknown Gabriel Nassif. During the Top 4 draft portion at one point Nassif's team picked a completely unplayable card— Tahngarth's Glare—midway through the pack in what looked like a moment of confusion and I spent much of the rest of the draft harping on the pick and making jokes about it.
In reality taking the Glare had left a combination of cards on the table that ensured their team would get a playable card back on the wheel unless the opposing team wasted multiple picks hate drafting. It was actually a sharp forward-thinking pick but I narrowed in on it as something to joke about rather than trying to figure it out.
Over time I improved as I came to understand what was important to focus on as a commentator. Saying "That play was really bad" doesn't do anyone any good. Saying "I think he should have played Primeval Titan that turn because based on the fact that his opponent tapped out last turn it seems unlikely that he has Mana Leak and he can't afford to wait because he's going to die before he gets to nine mana" is a whole lot better. Providing the viewer with context for your analysis and explaining not just that a play is right or wrong but why is crucial to keeping them engaged.
I find the opportunities that I have to do commentary provide me with interesting insight into the sorts of mistakes that players make because I'm watching them happen right in front of me and breaking them down as I go. It's one thing to narrate your own games and discuss why you're making particular decisions but unless you're absolutely exhaustive in your analysis you're rarely going to touch on every possible play. Sometimes doing commentary gives you perfect moments that are shining examples of what not to do.
And again—I'm not bringing up these examples in an attempt to ridicule the players involved but rather as teachable moments. Sometimes concrete examples of the kinds of mistakes people make are the best way to show people how not to make them.
A common theme I noticed this past weekend at the SCG Open Series in Phoenix was over-sideboarding in aggressive decks. What I mean by that is that I kept seeing players on camera lose games because they were sitting with reactive cards in their hands while their control opponents took over the game via axis that those reactive cards did not interact with profitably.
For example in one round I watched a player piloting my Naya deck facing off against an Esper Control deck. The Esper player had an early Despise taking the Naya player's only significant threat—a Hero of Bladehold—and leaving an Oblivion Ring and Ray of Revelation in hand. I actually said at the time "Well I hope he didn't sideboard in any more Ray of Revelations because that's the absolute worst thing he could draw right now." Sure enough the player's very next draw step was a Ray of Revelation. Without the ability to put any significant pressure on his opponent the Naya player eventually succumbed to his opponent's superior card power level.
I asked the player afterwards about his sideboarding plan and he said that he brought in all of his Rays (he actually had three!) because he knew his opponent had multiple Curse of Death's Hold in his deck and assumed he also had Oblivion Rings. While I can certainly understand the logic behind wanting Ray to combat these cards the problem with his plan is exactly what ended up happening. When you're an aggressive deck you can't afford to play too many reactive cards against control because you run the risk of being unable to muster a fast enough start if you draw too many of them.
Many players typically think of sideboard cards as pretty much binary for a matchup—either they're good or not so you either board them in or you don't. While this is often the case it's not universally applicable by any means. Playing against Esper Control with Naya I often board in a single copy of Ray because it's rarely that bad to draw and can often find good targets but I don't want to run the risk of drawing too many.
Similarly against Delver decks I often board in a single copy of Ancient Grudge because I want to have access to artifact removal to kill Runechanter's Pike but I don't want to draw a bunch of Grudges against a bunch of creatures. I have two copies of each of these in my sideboard because I want the second in other matchups (like B/W Tokens for Ray and Birthing Pod for Grudge) but that doesn't mean that I need to bring in every copy against every deck with enchantments or artifacts!
Dan Paskins once wrote an article talking about "The Fear" in which he discusses how players irrationally make decisions based on the possibility of a terrible worst-case scenario. While the examples he uses are very much dated the reasoning is sound. Incredibly often I see players sideboard in cards for matchups in which they have no business using them seemingly in fear of some kind of "How do I win if….?" scenario. Often the correct answer to those questions is "You don't but you win before that ever happens."
One such instance came up this past weekend while I was doing commentary. I was watching U/R Delver against Esper Stoneblade and the U/R Delver player was in an excellent position with his opponent on the back foot for a long time. Eventually however the Esper Stoneblade player was able to resolve a Jace while at two life and ride the planeswalker to victory.
Sounds pretty typical doesn't it? Well here's the kicker: the whole time the Esper player was at a precarious two life the U/R player had Echoing Truth in his hand. If that Echoing Truth had been virtually any other card in his entire list he would have been able to win the game on the spot when his opponent tapped out for Jace. Echoing Truth was a sideboard card in his list so the Delver player had clearly sideboarded it in for some reason. What was he so afraid of?
Sure his opponent's deck had powerful equipment against him like Batterskull and Jitte but he already had Smash to Smithereens for those and Echoing Truth is hardly a better answer. His opponent had Lingering Souls the tokens from which Echoing Truth could kill in one fell swoop but is that better than just having a more focused aggressive deck?
While Magic can sometimes seem like a game of haymakers with cards like Primeval Titan and Jace visibly dominating whenever they come into play it's also a game that is won and lost in the margins. Something as simple as sideboarding in one too many reactive cards and drawing it when you need a threat can mean the difference between your opponent winning the game with Jace and dying before they're able to play it.
There's no hard and fast rule for what "too many" entails but when in doubt don't sideboard reactive cards in your aggressive deck against control decks. Patrick Sullivan and I were talking about this very issue during our commentary in Phoenix and he said "You know what my favorite sideboard plan was for Mono Red against Caw-Blade? Present my deck." Sure your opponent might have Kor Firewalker or they might have Timely Reinforcements but boarding in Ratchet Bomb or Leyline of Punishment or whatever just left you open to drawing a bunch of those when your opponent was at two life and all you needed was a burn spell.
The best sideboard cards for aggressive decks against control decks are the kind that are inherently proactive. I don't want a bunch of Rays against Esper but I'm happy bringing in Acidic Slime since in a pinch I can use it to kill an Oblivion Ring or attack their fragile mana base. Similarly I like cards like Thalia Manabarbs and Garruk Primal Hunter—cards that attack along a different axis than the rest of your strategy.
I've always been a fan of Thrun so I'm sure I'll be able to get behind that new Sigarda lady once she's legal: cards that are difficult for particular strategies to deal with. I like cards like Distress and Negate that can be used both to stop specific threats but also to protect your own. Basically when I'm an aggressive deck sideboarding against a control deck I want the cards I'm bringing in to be cards that I'm happy to see in my opening hand no matter what my opponent might draw rather than hoping I have the right reactive cards to line up with what they have—that's the control deck's job.
Know your role. Mike Flores might ask "Who's the beatdown?" If it's you then you don't want to have a bunch of situational reactive cards clogging up your hand so don't put them in your deck. Sure maybe your opponent will draw a Curse of Death's Hold that you want to kill or maybe they'll play a bunch of Lingering Souls tokens that you can't deal with. And sometimes you'll lose to those cards. But more often you'll lose because you'll be sitting there with a Ray of Revelation or Echoing Truth when what you need is a threat and you'll be the one who loses.
If you're the beatdown be the beatdown.
Until next time