It's no secret that Gatecrash and I don't get along. My usual excitement for a new set is primarily based on the number of "powerful" cards that can be utilized by control decks of any color combination. In Return to Ravnica, there were many spells that went straight into my Esper Control deck, and that was with the inclusion of only one on-color guild. I had big expectations for Gatecrash due to the fact that it would add two on-color guilds. When I was shocked and slightly disgusted after the release of the full spoiler, I remembered once again that WotC hates control and loves creatures.
It sounds like a bold assumption, but I think we can all agree that the power level of creatures has increased while spell potency has decreased. Don't kill me for this one, reader, but…I'm kind of glad. When piloting a deck full of monsters is the cat's pajamas, we will bunker down behind control and tinker with it until the matchup is in our favor. Even if we have to resort to Trading Post or Blind Obedience to give us that slight edge, it is worth it because we will reap the benefits. Tournaments are easy to dissect and destroy if the metagame is stable and if you are one of the few people in the room playing a particular deck.
This article will give you the reasons why I don't play the "best" deck and why going rogue is the best option to achieve tournament success. I will also give you a saucy, post-Gatecrash Esper list free of charge. :)
Advantages and Disadvantages of Net Decking
We all know how to play Magic, and we've all had some success with it in some arena. I remember being stoked to battle in FNM because that was my tournament world and I wanted nothing more than to win it each and every week. Of course, I now hold myself to a higher standard, and although this may sound silly, I honestly am partially motivated by not wanting to embarrass myself in front of you all.
I preach and lecture about decks that I get behind each and every season, and if I were to not see a Top 8 with them, how much confidence could you muster for one of my brews? My excitement from the game comes when John Smith from Kansas tweets that he just made Top 8 of an Open with my Esper deck, when Frank Karsten says he used Greater Gifts from States for his second in Worlds finish, or when I see the comments below with ideas to enhance or make appropriate tweaks to my build with the common goal of improvement.
I want to win, and you want to win; so how do we all win? I think step one is to stay away from the "best" deck at any given time. This does not apply to all of you, but I hope it applies to some because it's definitely my strength. When I played Caw-Blade in a few tournaments, I was beaten by every player that had more experience with it than me. Edgar Flores embarrassed me on camera, Gerry Thompson got me in an Open, and many more defeats followed.
The worst part was that I didn't see any mistakes on my part and wasn't particularly unlucky—it's just tough to defeat those who have lived and breathed the best deck from conception to format rotation. The hours and hours of playtesting they've put into it as well as the play skill they bring to the table will hinder you or I in the mirror match more often than not.
I remember Gerry, Jarvis Yu, and Josh Cho playing Delver after that. Gerry tweeted at the first Invitational that I made Top 8 that he was "5-0, 6-0, 7-0" against Seachrome Coast decks. He was obviously talking about the mirror match. I personally was crushed by Jarvis and Josh when playing the Delver mirror in the same Open that I almost made Top 8. Was I unlucky, or did I make more mistakes than my opponents? I know Magic involves a great deal of luck, but as a deckbuilder, I prefer to lower the percentage luck matters as much as I can.
Mirror matches can be driven by luck and skill depending on the format and your decklist. If you cast a Bloodbraid Elf in old Modern, flipped a Lightning Bolt, and targeted their face while they recently cascaded into two Tarmogoyfs, you'd in deep crap! Or if you cast a Thoughtseize into Bitterblossom while your opponent thought his keep was solid in the mirror, that game is probably over as well.
Luck plays a major factor in games where both players are battling with the same 75. That combined with the intricate decisions of the late game that require a great deal of skill creates a mountain too tall for average players and deckbuilding newcomers to climb. When playing an original deck or a deck that has been altered heavily from the mainstream, you dodge a lot of these problems with card understanding, luck pitfalls, and a lack of skill from hours played.
Are you still going to play that popular aggro or midrange deck? I don't think you're crazy for not brewing or altering a decklist to better suit you, but I do think that you need to put a ton of preparation into being ready to win the mirror match in tournaments.
Three Steps to a "Net Deck" Championship
1. Understand Your Card Choices
You didn't make the deck; therefore, you don't know the author's true intention with each card. I swear I thought the Japanese were messing with American net deckers for the longest time with their sideboards. One Circle of Protection Red…one Unsummon…come on now! I then came to realize that they understand what missing pieces their decks need for every possible matchup and situation to make the sideboard count perfect. Remember playing in FNM years ago, my fellow old people, and getting mad at net deckers? I remember when copying decks was one of the mortal sins of casual Magic. The explosiveness of the Internet has made such a phrase as old in the Magic world as dinosaurs in the real one.
My suggestion is to fan out the cards after completing a deck and analyzing what each card's purpose is. Take into consideration matchup, card power, mana curve, and any other additional benefit to run that card. The individual should come out at this point, and if you honestly can't understand why a certain card is in that particular copied list, then cut it for something you think the deck is lacking or contact the deck's author and ask why. I think most of us do this step, and I know some of you guys ask me about lists you've created that are similar to mine. Of course, my feelings get a bit hurt, and I try to convince you to switch this for that and so on until it you have a replica… But eventually I accept the fact that you are preparing for YOUR metagame and using cards that YOU are comfortable with.
2. Playtest, Playtest, Playtest
We are all busy with life, but simply sleeving up a known deck card for card and entering the battlefield will usually result in a swift 1-2 drop. We want to prevent that. Playtesting is something that is undervalued and something I don't do a whole lot of. The reason for that is I am comfortable with every card in my deck and tend to play the same things for years if I can. When you are playing something brand new, you have to take it out for a spin and get the feel for each mechanic and interaction it utilizes. With enough playtesting, you will be confident and minimalize the mistakes you commit when playing in a tournament. You will have a much better shot at defeating the best that play this game with every extra minute you spend playtesting the deck.
While playtesting brushes up your skills with a deck and Magic play in general, it also serves other purposes. You are able to see many hands and experience many different situations against an array of decks, which allows for a professional method of altering to improve deck. The pros don't know it all and don't know what you will face in your particular area, but you can adapt and improve after getting to know your copied deck well. You are also able to perfect the mana base and consistency with enough time at the helm of a new deck. All in all, this step is an important one if you decide to play a deck you found online. Does playtesting help with a rogue or modified deck? Absolutely, but the percentage of ability gained isn't as drastic in those circumstances.
3. Understand the Mirror Match
Knowing how to defeat the mirror is of the utmost importance. This step cannot be ignored or dodged because at some point you will play against the same or a similar deck and being prepared puts you on a different level. Knowing what hands to keep with your deck is a vital skill. Keeping land-light hands in a matchup that goes frequently gets to the late game can sometimes be an auto loss.
In the Esper mirror match, if I keep a two land + Azorius Charm hand with some nonsense, my chances of winning are severely diminished. If I keep a similar hand with some action spells on turn 3 and 4 versus Mono-Red, then that decision could be correct. Aggressive mulligans are always correct if you know what you are playing against because a hand can be optimal against one deck and abysmal against another. Don't be afraid to go to six or even five if you don't have the resources needed to defeat the opposing 75.
Tight play is another must in the mirror match. Against other decks, you can make multiple suboptimal plays or even blatant mistakes and survive with a win. The mirror match is not as forgiving. When you are using the same spells and win conditions, your choices have a bigger impact on the outcome a majority of the time.
Your removal must be used aggressively when the only creatures are Augur of Bolas and more conservatively used when the creature package is more threatening. The same goes for holding back your threats when you know the exact amount of sweepers and playing every monster the minute you draw them against a deck with no answer. I could go on with more examples, but I think you've got it. Each play you make in the mirror has more of a ripple effect on the future game states that follow each and every turn.
Originality Has Its Perks
The pros of creating your own brew outweigh the effort of mastering someone else's mainstream choice. When playing your own decks, you have the ability to understand the role of each card against each matchup. You also can take a shell of a control, aggro or midrange deck and fill out the rest of your brew with cards to improve matchups that you personally have a hard time beating. For example, my friend Scott is a "careful" player and tends not to finish his matches on time. When he started playing my Esper list, we decided to keep Pike in the main in order for him to improve his control matchups and to stay out of the draw bracket.
Other useful advice when piloting your own list is to tweak a card choice here and there to improve your matchup against aggro, midrange, or control. I decided to cut Feeling of Dread because I found myself doing well against aggro decks, whereas that card might be the saving grace for other players. I might feel weak against B/R Zombies, while you might feel it's a good matchup. People play differently, keep different hands, and make decisions that create results that aren't identical across the board.
Many people have asked me, "How do you beat G/W?" and I haven't lost more than 10% of the time against that deck. After going over a few strategies, it comes to a point where you have to make changes to your deck that may make other matchups suboptimal but increase your struggling matchup tenfold.
The Surprise Advantage
Avid tournament players know the metagame and test their butts off for weeks prior to the event. When you sit down across from them and play a Temple Garden and lay an Abundant Growth on it immediately, most players know what you're playing and can prepare a strategy to defeat you. If your deck contains no countermagic, then you will see an enemy slam a Jace with no worries of disruption. When playing mainstream decks, you will suffer the same fate as many others: a frontal attack with no possibility of deception.
Surprise is an underrated advantage in Magic. Following the wave of net decks that took control of Magic around 2007, it's unusual to play against a rogue deck more than a couple times every two or three tournaments. Some pro buddies of mine refer to them as "Shaheen" decks when preparing casually for them because they know I will be in attendance with some of my readers and that we will be piloting some crazy Blink Riders, Greater Good, Esper Control, or whatever the flavor of the year is.
This element of surprise we bring to the tournament scene will shake the majority of opponents you battle against. Opponents will panic and play around cards you don't have and assume you don't have cards that you do. Multiple wins can be racked up through opponents that are unprepared and unaware of how to play against the unknown. Fewer things in Magic are more difficult to overcome than the unknown.
A maindeck Rootborn Defenses could absolutely demolish me if my plan was to take additional damage in order to gain more value out of my Supreme Verdict. Opponents may not play fully into a Terminus on turn 6 even though my list contains zero terminuses. When you don't know what tools the enemy has, it can disrupt the flow of the game plan and create many more opportunities to make misplays that lead to a loss.
Road to Fame
We all know that my buddy Ali Aintrazi won an Open with Caw-Blade, right? Actually, no one remembers that. What we do know is he made Top 8 of an Open with a crazy Five-Color Control deck with Door to Nothingness and almost made Top 8 of a Grand Prix with it. When you perform well with mainstream decks, you will be forgotten eventually even if your accomplishments are stellar, but when you win with your own creation or a tech version of decks in current circulation, then you become someone people trust in terms of deckbuilding and strategy to win. It's hard to win a huge tournament with Caw-Blade, but the difficulty isn't what people are awed by.
People want originality and a diverse format. When a format is dominated by one deck, like Faeries, Caw-Blade, or Delver, the last thing people want are more strategy articles or finishes by said decks. When you are the pioneer in the world, country, community, FNM tournament, or EDH game, you gain a great deal of respect and admiration. Whether you take Mass Polymorph to a Pro Tour or play some wild Commander at the kitchen table, you are making a name for yourself regardless of who is watching.
This deck plays out nearly identically to the other versions from the past year. We draw some cards, kill some creatures, and grind out advantage with each spell we cast. Eventually, your opponent will become too discouraged to battle and will either concede or slump in their chair with the look of defeat across their face. The new cards added were the ones I pointed out in my last article with the addition of Blind Obedience.
Blind Obedience is a card that will work wonders against all the hasty cards in Standard. Even if haste isn't the scariest ability, the draining is enough to warrant a spot, especially at the two slot. I have fallen in love with two-mana answers in every format. Anything from Spreading Seas to Luminarch Ascension and even cards like Sun Droplet that are so good in their respective formats. Tragic Slip gains power with the addition of Liliana of the Veil and answers indestructible threats as well as any card enhanced by a resolved Boros Charm. With Lingering Souls, you will almost always have a morbid on call to answer the scariest of threats too. Liliana also gives you the ability to discard dead removal in control matchups, making her the MVP with the addition of the new set.
This build is created with the presumption that Boros-colored decks will gain traction. Anything from Naya to Four-Color is already quite viable, but with extra shocklands and new powerful spells, you will see a resurgence. The main card that strikes fear in the heart of a control player like me is Boros Charm. That card does SO much damage that I am already crafting a battle plan to defeat it.
Aurelia's Fury is another new card that can just be devastating when setting up a perfectly timed board sweep or planeswalker after taking some punishment. If and when that card gets played, we will have to adjust modes and play more liberally to prevent getting blown out again and again. Luckily, both threatening spells are instants, so Negate becomes a more viable answer. However, the last thing we want is to clutter our 60 with more countermagic. If things get too bad, then you'll see me jam some Witchbane Orbs as an answer multiple threatening burn spells and maybe even a little Trading Post to gain some life every turn.
Even though aggro got some crazy spells and we got nothing too exciting for control, I wouldn't freak out. Esper Control was already powerful, and with its mana getting better, I think it will be smooth sailing from here. Esper contains the colors that can answer the rest of the color wheel with ease, but it will take some tweaking and metagaming to perfect it. A card to consider that wasn't in the last article is Orzhov Charm. The reason why I'm not jamming it into the deck is because I want to test with Tragic Slip and Ultimate Price first. If people play a lot of Deathrite Shamans and Huntmaster of the Fells, we might have to use a few, but at this point I'd stick with the more narrow and life-saving options.
I hope this article gave you some perspective on the effects of playing the "best" deck versus decks of your own creation or with alterations. As always, the pleasure is all mine, and I look forward to reading your comments!
Twitter - @shaheenmtg
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