There is going to be a complete lack of direct content about the current Standard and Limited formats from me this week and next week. I'm of the Kibler school of thought here: I have no idea what is and isn't widely known information, and I don't feel comfortable talking in case I reveal things that aren't. Even if I did know, what's the point of talking about things that everyone supposedly knows?
Of course, there's a lot of indirect value to be gained instead.
This article is inspired by a couple specific Internet occurrences.
The first is a Twitter conversation with Anthony Lowry started by his frustrations with post-Gatecrash testing. Long story short, he kept trying new things, and people kept shooting them down on principle instead of trying to examine why they mattered. We had a decent chat that may have included some words not fit for publishing language, but the following was the big takeaway.
"From experience, being negatively skeptical isn't punished until the Pro Tour level of competition and is rewarded at low levels. So, often people get trapped into a mindset that benefits them in the short term (FNM) and is a wash in the mid (PTQ/GP)."
What does this mean?
This is how you end up with a lot of the big skill jumps in high-level play. This is why some people are great at Grand Prix and SCG Opens but can't cash a Pro Tour. And by some people, I mean definitely me for at least my first three years on the Pro Tour.
People start knowing things due to experience, so that leads to them thinking they know the answers to many things that they don't have experience with.
That's an extremely generic statement; how about we go over some examples with real applications.
1. Card and Deck Evaluation
This is the most common place where confidence is a downfall. I've been extremely guilty of this in the past. Some notable ones: Geist of Saint Traft, Lingering Souls, and Drogskol Captain is too many three-drops, so Esper Spirits is unplayable (just cut Geist). Hellrider is way too good, and the Boros decks just have bad mana in Innistrad Block (if your only red spells are Humans, the deck is awesome and has great mana).
This is me from last August, looking back on all of these misses.
"The short answer: try first, evaluate later. I generally have a decent head for unique effects, but in the future I just need to sit down and build with four of a new card to try it out before going back to the old shells."
It's also easy to see how this trap of early dismissal comes up. The easiest way into competitive Magic is showing up with some random pile of cards, getting crushed, and building a deck that beat you. Usually, it's easy to get stomped so many times with random brews at FNM that you realize you win the most when you just play something known to be good. Just play the obviously better deck against untuned brews and win the same way you were losing.
This applies to lesser extents all the way through the Grand Prix level, and even there the formats are usually so known that the best deck is around for you to learn great technical play with it. If the format isn't well explored, big deal. Your randomly solid list will likely punish a lot of unrefined brews. However, once in a while someone shows up with the right brew and the right amount of tuning to punish your assumptions of the format, and when that happens (usually due to the effort being incentivized by a larger prize pool), you might lose because of it.
There's a reason the community values brewers so much. They tend to ignore what exists in favor of doing it their way. They build around cards because they are there, not because they are good. Of course, this isn't really the optimal way to go about it either. The phrase "even a blind squirrel finds a nut sometimes" comes to mind. Investing your heart and soul into something just because it's there doesn't assure a great outcome—there needs to be a real purpose behind what you do.
So, you are a brewer; how do you gain the skills needed to become a grinder/tuner? Well, that's easy: grind the best deck for a while and make it better. What about for the grinders and tuners to become brewers? Well, they have to brew.
Easier said than done.
Brewing pushes you out of your comfort zone as a tuner. There aren't many obvious includes you can ignore evaluating, if any. This leads to a lot of confounding information, something that's not usually present when tuning a known deck. It's a lot easier to figure out if something from your deck is good in the context of 56 other fixed cards. If you only know 30 of them will remain the same, a card could be bad now and great later once you change a few other clunkers.
Stop thinking of it as brewing. Think of it as maximizing your cards.
Part of the secret is that more cards are "build around me" cards than you realize at first glance. Even if it's just a default good card like Lightning Bolt, you can choose your other 56 cards to maximize it. Play aggressive creatures to make the three to a player mode relevant for reach and the three to a creature mode relevant to clear blockers. Play a deck that really wants the one-mana removal spell to bridge the gap into a powerful midgame.
A phrase I've heard more and more in the last year that really applies: card power level is all contextual. If you are wondering if a card is good, make a shell where it should be good and go from there. Sure, you can use existing shells to evaluate it, but just because it doesn't fit there doesn't mean it isn't good somewhere else.
Yes, this takes time, but so does tuning a deck and learning the technical play. If you are good at doing that, it should be easy to pick up while working on other things.
2. Too Big of a Shortcut
I wrote a bit about shortcuts a year ago and how important they are in developing solid technical play. While I still do think they are a huge deal, there are pitfalls associated with them. The wrong shortcut leads to repeated instances of incorrect play, likely leading to losses.
Let's talk about a scenario that came up in testing for this Pro Tour: mulligans. Over the past year and a half, I've become known for keeping a lot of hands others wouldn't. Notably, I keep a lot of one landers.
Why is that?
Firstly, this happens a lot more in testing than in tournament play. It's the same concept as making odd picks in practice drafts: all you want to do is find the reasonable range. There are a lot of decks and formats where normally terrible hands, like one landers on the play, are very reasonable. I've started playing a lot of decks with singular high-power cards. Think Tempered Steel or Birthing Pod. If your hand is "risky" but has your game plan set up once you hit, you may very well be able to miss more turns than you would expect and still be favored to win. You know from "experience" to ship that one lander, but with Tempered Steel an average six was worse than something like Plains, Signal Pest, two Glint Hawk Idol, Memnite, two Tempered Steel because the card was just that good and the format that forgiving.
Maybe you are in a matchup where play or draw isn't relevant. Would you keep a one lander or color-light hand on the draw? If yes, how big of a difference is it to miss a land drop? Your opponent is just effectively up a card on the play. Not a huge deal, especially when the alternative of a mulligan puts them up a card.
Even within generalizations, things change drastically. In many past Mono-Red Aggro variants, I would reliably keep one landers on the play, but not in pre-Gatecrash (and presumably current) Standard. These red decks lean too heavily on expensive cards like Hellrider to keep one landers that won't likely cast them. The window to win also closes in this format much more rapidly than in past ones due to Thragtusk.
Hopefully, this illustrates my point. Obviously, the goal isn't to relearn the game for every event or even the format, but the differences due to small changes can be quite large indeed. At the least briefly question your premises on a regular basis. You will be better off for it.
The other inspiration for this article is a blog post by EDH overlord Sheldon Menery, from which I shamelessly stole the title. His discussion was mostly in the context of making mistakes in kitchen work, but it gave me the context I needed to frame this. The takeaway: people make mistakes because they assume they know what's going on.
Comments on the Modern Bans and the Subsequent Format
First of all, I'm really not a fan of the recent bans. I understand where they were coming from on both, but the Modern format needed stability right now over anything else in order to build a base. As of now, there's a definite fear amongst a lot of people that the format could just randomly not exist in any similar fashion on a whim. While I don't feel it is in Wizards of the Coast's range or best interest to do that any time soon, this fear can easily become a self-fulfilling prophecy if people start avoiding the format like they did with old Extended.
Moving forward, it's also worth noting that in established Eternal formats banning new cards tends to tax the player base less than banning old cards. The reason for this should be obvious: the reinvestment in testing and cards is less if there is a fallback. Of course, this might not apply for something designed to be as heavily used as Modern, where it is better for large events to keep things mixed up.
Also, Storm killing on turn 3 was a joke. I actually think I lost more matches to Hive Mind than Storm in testing for the last few major Modern events. For those who don't play the format much, the punch line is no one actually plays Hive Mind. Storm definitely did violate the turn 3 kill policy, but most of those turn 3 kills were on the back of a creature. If we are allowed to Infect because it's a creature-based combo, why not Storm? What about Goryo's Vengeance? Nivmagus Elemental?
On to actually playing the format:
First of all, I think Jund will remain the default midrange deck. Terminate, Lightning Bolt, the other on-color four-drops, and sideboard options like Ancient Grudge are likely still stronger than their blue (Mana Leak and Snapcaster Mage) or white (Path to Exile, Doran, Lingering Souls) counterparts. There are also additional red options to be explored now that you don't have to play with cascade spells. Bloodhall Ooze was in one of the Jund lists from this past weekend's online PTQ, and while I'm not sold on the card, there may be other one-drop creatures or X spells you want to find room for. Part of me also wants to make a Restoration Angel centric list for a Junk (G/W/B) list, but I don't have the time or energy to devote to it right now.
The best place to start is finding decks that specifically lost to Bloodbraid Elf being played over Olivia Voldaren, Huntmaster of the Fells, Falkenrath Aristocrat, or some number of smaller guys. The Deathrite Shaman / Dark Confidant / Tarmogoyf / Liliana of the Veil shell is not going anywhere, so your Infect deck that lost to Jund when they played those and removal is not any better.
Random creature decks don't get much better. Sorry to all the Temple Garden enthusiasts out there. A lot of cards like Loxodon Smiter actually get worse since the Bloodbraid Elf replacements are better than a 3/2 plus a random card against them. That said, they could get indirectly better if Jund starts getting pushed out by decks that now beat it, but they get little or no direct benefit from the bans.
Combo gets a small benefit, but not much. Specifically, slower combo decks gain more than fast ones like Infect and Eggs. Scapeshift immediately comes to mind. As I mentioned in the comments of Chas's article yesterday, Bloodbraid Elf represented a faster clock and more proactive attrition (read: discard) against a deck that needs every card it can draw to win. With Elf being replaced, the Jund matchup will get a bit easier and likely be more representative of the favorable matchup it is stated as.
The big winners are the Hallowed Fountain tempo and control decks that have recently been performing well. Bloodbraid Elf was not only a two for one; it was a way to pull forward on a board they were attempting to keep clear with one for ones. A good start is the following control deck piloted by none other than Guillaume Wafo-Tapa in a Magic Online Premier event, which should have an edge on the Larry Swasey aggro-control lists by being a step bigger. You may just need to adjust a bit for extra Geist of Saint Trafts.
As a result of this previous shift and the Jund changes, Pod strategies are likely get a little worse. It's not that the Hallowed Fountain matchups were bad, but they were more difficult to maneuver than most others. Bloodbraid Elf was also quite mediocre against you. As a 3/2, Elf just traded for Kitchen Finks poorly and got blocked by all the random Walls and Deceiver Exarch. Olivia Voldaren does big things beyond casting a random spell, and Huntmaster can provide similar increasing advantages.
With an increased focus on fair mirrors, the second level will be to move to less interactive decks. Tron and Eggs would be my first two choices. Eggs was already a great choice, and the move to more U/W/R will scare off a bad matchup in Twin. Tron is the worse deck in the "next level" mirror, but it is inherently better against the random piles of countermagic some of these decks have.
The short version: fair decks get better, but don't get too inbred. Prepare for Tron and potentially Eggs if people are going to be wild enough to sleeve it up.