I tweeted for people to ask me some questions for this article since I was requested to take a break from my usual structure for the end of the year. So I'm going to choose a few of those that I feel like answering and use them as extended prompts. It should be substantially different from most of my articles, but I think I'll find some good things to say.
@SamuelHBlack Which is more important, choice of deck in the meta, or understanding of your deck?— Luke Southworth (@hunterlionheart) December 24, 2013
I think the answer is understanding of your deck—but only with substantial caveats and stipulations. Most importantly, it has to genuinely be a playable deck. There are a lot of decks that will lose no matter how well they're played, but I think it's pretty clear from results that the best players do well and that there are several different decks they might do well with in any given field. So presumably, if there is a single deck that you can play as well as a player who is much better than you are with any other deck, you should play the one that you play substantively better. Obviously, the question is still far from clear—often the calculation will look more like, "I'm 3% better with deck A than deck B, but deck B is 2% better against the field." I genuinely believe that the percentages are usually roughly in that range too.
Also, a lot goes into deck familiarity. Sometimes you might feel very comfortable playing game 1s with a deck, but you might have no idea how to sideboard in some important matchups. Or maybe you know how to sideboard in the important matchups because you read a guide, but you don't really know how to sideboard against a fringe deck you've never played against before. It can often be hard to figure out exactly how well you actually know a deck before playing it in a tournament.
I've generally found that I do best in tournaments where I feel like my deck really clicks for me and I realize exactly what I need to focus on in each matchup and what kinds of things the deck is generally asking me to do more than I normally might.
In practical terms, I think the real question people are trying to figure out the answer to when they ask a question like this is "should I change decks to choose the deck that I think is best against the field or just choose a deck early and try to learn it really well?" I don't really think the best way to learn a deck really well is to just pick it early and stick with it.
That can work, but personally I recommend playing around with as many decks as possible for a while and then focusing on one that speaks to you—that is to say the one that you perform well with and feel like you understand better than the others. The experience of having played the other decks will be valuable to understanding what they do and how games look from the other side, and just understanding more of the general dynamics of the format should help you succeed with whatever deck you settle on.
@SamuelHBlack How can one analyze an opponent's deck to understand what cards and mechanics are most important on each side in the matchup?— Branden J Brown (@zephyrtronium) December 24, 2013
This can be tricky, especially with a deck you've never seen before and with so little time to figure it out. I think we really get to see this when we look at preparing for Top 8 matches in Pro Tours. I'll have the opponent's decklist and a team of players, and we'll try to figure out how the opponent will sideboard, how we should sideboard, and whether we need to do something differently depending on how the opponent sideboards. Even with all the information and several great minds, the task can be shockingly difficult. I very rarely see both teams reach the same conclusions, so I'm always surprised by how one or both players actually ends up sideboarding. This is one of the hardest things to do and one of the things the community collectively is worst at.
The important thing is to build a strategy. Understand how you need the games to play out to win and figure out which cards you'll need to make that happen. I'll use Mono-Blue Devotion in Standard as an example since that's the deck I'm most familiar with at the moment. Consider the mirror match. The question is "how do you want to sideboard?" but to answer that you need to figure out how you'd like to play. Specifically, imagine the following extremely basic situation.
You have three mana, and your opponent has two. You have Nightveil Specter; some lands; Jace, Architect of Thought; and Gainsay. Do you plan to cast Nightveil Specter in a spot like this? If you do, you'll likely win if it resolves, particularly if their hope is to Domestication it since they'll only have three mana and you'll be able to untap with Gainsay before they can cast that. On the other hand, if your opponent has Gainsay and a Nightveil Specter of their own, you'll be in pretty bad shape if they counter, untap, and cast theirs, and you could just pass, hope they go for it, cast your Gainsay, and then resolve a Jace to play around Domestication.
Now, let's say you know that in that spot you'll pass with Gainsay up, but what if you don't have a Gainsay at all? Will you just pass with mana up to bluff, with the hope that your opponent won't go for it and you can just up more lands into play and maybe draw a counter? That's a less likely play, and honestly whether it's right is going to depend on how your opponent plays. Are they the sort that will even consider passing because you have a full hand and didn't cast anything or will they just slam their threat, which in this case would put you on the back foot?
If you want to be able to just cast your threats, you'll want fewer counterspells and more answers, so you want to bring in Domestication and Rapid Hybridization or Curse of the Swine, might not care so much about Gainsay, and definitely won't want Dissolve. If your approach to the matchup is to assume that your opponent will have very few answers and your plan to win is to lure them into a trap where you can counter something and then get ahead by resolving a threat while they're tapped out, you'll want to err toward more counterspells.
Understanding all of this is why you hear players like Reid Duke say that they hate to copy a decklist and just play it as is regardless of how well it was made in the first place. If you tune a deck and put your own touch on it or build it from scratch, you'll likely know exactly why you put each card in and what you want to do with it, and you're more likely to play in a way that sculpts play patterns to maximize the specific cards that you had a specific plan for. This is even more important with sideboarding.
@SamuelHBlack what was the hardest thing for you to overcome to get where you are today, in competitive magic.— Kyle Smith (@HaplessMagician) December 24, 2013
Learning how to have positive social interactions with other players was easily the most challenging and important hurdle for me, and I think I've learned a lot about it that I can actually succinctly explain.
When meeting new players, it's best to assume they have an ego about their skill, especially if they have any reason to assume they're better than you. If you're new to a scene, established players will assume they're better than you, and they probably don't want to be proven wrong.
When I started showing up to GPs, I'd been a "big fish in a small pond" for a long time—I organized all the local drafts and taught a lot of friends how to play a lot better when I was in college, and I'd been doing very well on Magic Online. I knew that I could compete, and I knew that I understood things about the Limited formats that most players—even pros—probably didn't.
I wanted to have serious strategic discussions with the best players I could as soon as possible, so I wanted to show that I knew what I was talking about by offering my opinions. I'd wander up to people like Rich Hoaen and suggest a change for his Draft deck, and he'd just wonder who the hell I thought I was to try to tell him what to do (as he explained to me years later when we actually started working together despite his negative impression of me from when I'd approached him years ago).
My ideas at the time may or may not have been good; it doesn't matter. That's just not how things are done.
If you want to get to know Magic players, watch them, and (sparingly and when they're not busy) ask questions. If you see someone playing an original deck and you compliment the deck and ask about how they came up with it or why they made a choice they did (in a way that makes it clear that you're curious, not challenging them), they'll often be happy to tell you all about it. After all, they probably put a lot of thought into it, and they'll be happy someone appreciates it.
If you want people to know you're good, win tournaments. It takes a long time, but sometimes you just have to be patient. You also might be able to impress someone with your theory, but only if they ask you for it, not if you just force it on them.
This is likely all obvious to a lot of people, but I know it would have been really helpful to me when I was younger.
Incidentally, people joke about how Magic players don't have social skills, and maybe some things took me a long time to develop. But the fact of the matter is that a lot of the good things I know about interacting with people have come from Magic, and this kind of thing is why I have so much faith in Magic's ability to really teach people everything they need to know.
@SamuelHBlack I know it's been a while, but I'd love to hear you talk about the year you guys won Team Worlds.— Nathan Schneider (@EskimoNathan) December 24, 2013
This isn't exactly a question and I'm not sure what kind of answer Nathan is looking for, but I'll take a stab at it.
For those who don't know, I won the team portion of the World Championship in 2008 with Michael Jacob and Paul Cheon. That was the last time the US won that title. For those who don't know how things worked back then, we were the team because we finished first (MJ), second (me), and third (Paul) in US Nationals. This was one of my earlier real finishes, but I still felt like I had a (surprisingly at the time) number of people rooting for me during Nationals.
I played extremely well throughout the Swiss portion of Nationals and then made the finals through a comedy of errors and horrible plays in the Top 8. Honestly, I mostly played pretty well—except for one extremely embarrassing turn against Shaheen Soorani in the Top 8 where I didn't notice his Treetop Villages and sent my creatures to their deaths when I could have blown him out with Sudden Spoiling if I'd left a Llanowar Elves back to have the third mana to cast it. I still won that game though.
In the Top 4, I beat Paul Cheon by "drawing my zero outer" after accidentally sideboarding in a Sudden Spoiling in a matchup where that didn't make a whole lot of sense and definitely wasn't part of my plan. I'd asked Charles Gindy how to sideboard—I'd never met him, but someone told me where I could find him and suggested asking him because he'd just won a Pro Tour with a deck similar to the one I was playing. At first he told me I should side out my Kitchen Finks, but after we talked more he concluded that I should leave them in.
When I played Paul, I shuffled my sideboard into my deck and then pulled out all the cards I didn't want. I went through my deck once and counted all the cards I found that I didn't want. Only eleven, that's odd. Oh right, I was going to cut Kitchen Finks, so then I pulled out four Kitchen Finks and shuffled up. No, I wasn't planning to cut Kitchen Finks; I'd just missed four random cards while pulling out the cards I didn't want and then tricked myself into removing Kitchen Finks instead of finding them. And that's why I beat Paul.
I played some of the worst Magic I've ever played against MJ in the finals. It was deeply embarrassing. I knew it was a hard matchup, and I was just incredibly flustered. I don't really get like that anymore.
Actually preparing for Worlds was a little awkward, and the three of us didn't work together anywhere near as much as I would have liked. I don't remember the exact details on how that played out.
As for the actual tournament, I helped us start out strong in Standard on the first day with a 5-1 finish with Faeries. I played Elves in Extended, and that was not a good choice for the tournament. I managed to win about half my matches for the team portion with it but did very badly in the individual portion. Fortunately, my teammates did better, and Paul never dropped a match in the team competition playing Stifle-Naught in Legacy.
@SamuelHBlack what exactly goes into your preparation for large events?— CJ Steele (@FNMWorldChamp) December 24, 2013
@SamuelHBlack favorite board game and why— Jordan Ostrem (@Sliver9) December 24, 2013
My favorite board game is Dungeon Lords. I love that the game is incredibly punishing. If you make a mistake, there's a very good chance that your whole plan will fall apart. It means that avoiding catastrophe actually feels like an accomplishment. I love the flavor and humor of the game, and I like the basic mechanics that both task you with proper resource management and accurately predicting how your opponents will act while they're trying to trick and mess with you at the same time.
@SamuelHBlack what is your vision for the American school system and how does it translate into the collegiate environment?— E. Revlosnoc (@WorldlyTutor) December 24, 2013
I want school to teach people to excel rather than to get by. Rather than teaching people to follow instructions and have a basic body of knowledge, I believe the purpose of education should be to foster creativity and help students find and pursue passions. Ideally, I want the role of teachers to be to help provide students with the resources and networks to organize around core interests and follow those interests as far as they can take them and to find ways to tie in as many disciplines as possible into ways that clearly and directly support a prime directive of pursuing the student's true passion.
I'm not attached to the idea that this translate directly to a collegiate environment, as I'm not sure that environment is any more legitimate than the outdated system it's currently set up as the pinnacle of.
I would love to find a logistically possible way to move away from tests, which I see as serving the interests of corporations and governments and other systems that want the data far more than it actually serves the students. Tests don't teach things. At best, they serve as motivational tools to learn things, but I think they're hollow tools that teach students how to pass tests. Really, the information students are learning needs to be sufficiently motivating to stand on its own or it's really just not being framed right. Moreover, tests are currently mired in attempting to evaluate a student's collection of facts, which is just not a valuable thing to prioritize in a world with Google and Wikipedia where facts are so easily obtained.