Playing a game is like entering a maze. We block out the part of our mind that tells us this isn't real, and, effectively, project our agency into the modified reality constituted by the game's parameters. Once inside, we begin to navigate a series of challenges. Magic is a sophisticated maze; it has several sectors, some of which are randomized, some of which can be rearranged, some of which revolve. The Pro Tour circuit is a fixture that endows the maze with permanence and consequence, expanding its scale and heightening its reality.
The maze is in the shape of a pyramid. Compared to life in general, with its hazy boundaries, a game offers hard guidelines and definite winners and losers, making the setting ideal for competition and unambiguous action. When we enter into competition, we ante a measure of our real-world social value - what would've been called "honor" in ancient times - often attached to an ante of material worth. Of the latter, the maze's creators and curators siphon away their fee, and the remaining prize is maximized by being gathered together at the top, in common view. The share of money, and honor, is distributed along a steep angle. Participants will experience increasing pressure as they climb up through levels of succeeding difficulty, with the truly spirited always being frustrated by the level that eludes them. Catharsis only comes at the top.
Adventurers make their way through the game's pressurized chambers with varying degrees of wherewithal. There's no shortage of seasoned players who wander their level indefinitely, with increasing frustration, or those who simply expire. I used to be one but I passed away, returned to the land of the living. Still, in the disenchanted world of the 21st century, the game's simulacrum of meaning, however artificial, maintains an allure. This makes me a ghost, muttering curses as I watch the structure evolve in fast-motion. The construction of new expanded levels at the base; the narrowing of upper sections; the progressive refinement of design mechanisms and extraction techniques; the self-organization of participants into castes, with the game's historical elite forming together into a cruel master race, and the PTQ-winning morlocks fumbling insipid and divided in the darkness.
The architects pride themselves on retention. No one ever leaves for good. Too many goblins on the brain. And yet, no one's held in eternal limbo either; through mysterious processes - an elaborate system of mirrors? - the dungeon is entered again.
My younger brother, Jackson, won a close and intricate PTQ final and celebrated with characteristic generosity by taking friends and supporters for dessert and drinks. He had recently hit his competitive stride. Although he never played Constructed, aside from a JSS Championship over ten years ago, he regularly moneydrafted with friends Adham, Devon, Daniel, and Oliver, and made road trips out of local Sealed PTQs. He went from never making a PTQ Top 8 to stringing together four almost in a row until his win. In older language, again, Jackson could be described as a gentleman; kind without being weak, funny without being a buffoon, practical without being vulgar. It should go without saying that my high-strung conspiracy theories fall outside of his perspective. After the PTQ semi-finals, at the prospect of preparing for a largely Constructed tournament during a busy time of life, Jackson considered splitting away the slot. I urged him to play it out, saying that participating in the Pro Tour at least once would be a worthwhile experience for a lifelong player, and that I would help him prepare. In the end, although an agreeable split wouldn't have been possible anyway, he had resolved to play, lest the impossible dream of the PTQ grinder be rendered absurd. So once again I found myself concerned with preparing for the Pro Tour, but this time with my energies directed away from myself.
I have some experience as a trainer, with some role in the successes of Canadian mavericks like Murray Evans and Aeo Paquette. Technical play, the ability to manage complex board states with precision, is an essential part of the game and probably the softest aspect of my own. To compensate I've developed other aspects as far as they can go - metagaming, tuning, sideboarding, preparation, bluffing, and mind games; and in Limited, a tight-aggressive approach to format analysis and card pointing - a small library of homespun battle tactics. When I work with someone who has a strong technical game to begin with, there's usually a lot of room for improvement. I was also able to act as a guide, with my experience providing knowledge of the dangerous tendencies of thought, or traps, that players can fall into. We were preparing for a particular tournament, but the approaches themselves were time-worn and applicable into the indefinite future.
One of our first discussions was about goals. Jackson said that he was aiming for Day 2, a common and reasonable sightline for a first-timer. I said that we should aim higher, for Top 8. To an amateur, in the abstract, reaching Day 2 sounds like a worthwhile goal; in fact, when you're actually sitting at 4-4 or 5-3, the feeling is one of missed opportunity and mediocrity. Unavoidable as it may be, it's not a result to set your sights on. Besides the fact that preparing for a top finish can only help the result, I really believed that it was possible with intelligent and efficient preparation. The Pro Tour is both easier and harder than amateurs realize. It's easier in the sense that the competition is not superhuman; they'll be playing decks that operate within the same parameters that you prepared for. It's harder in the sense that if you don't adequately prepare--if you show up with an unrefined and/or stock deck--you're dead in the water. In mistaken submission to the pros, amateurs are liable to resort to desperate measures rather than do the thoughtful work that will put them in a position to succeed.
We approached the tournament with surprising discipline, considering a realistic appraisal of its EV. Competitive Magic, for the numbers to work, has to factor in fun, but this motive can easily cause preparation to become careless. Jackson and I both had limited time; although we built decks on Magic Online and exchanged thoughts by e-mail, we were only able to meet a few times in person at Jackson's plush Vancouver condo. Our communication had to be efficient, focused on solving specific problems within a shared conception of the format.
In unwieldy team dynamics, so much time is wasted by diverging purposes, mismatched interpretations of the problems at hand, and foggy or exaggerated playtesting reports. A proper discussion doesn't occur. Instead, there's chatter, some disparate results are corralled, many members are allowed to act as parasites, someone brews up a deck that looks decent, and the results are largely mediocre. In a focused playtesting session, even just five games might reveal the key workings of a matchup or sideboard plan, but this requires teammates to be looking for the same things and placing them in a similar context. For this reason, it's good for teammates, not only to be of approximate skill levels but to have a foundation of trust, respect, and common sensibilities. One of the best testing experiences I've had was at the Team Constructed PT in Charlotte. None of us had playtested much beforehand, but we arrived a week early and talked through the format continuously, steadily honing in on solutions. It's no surprise to me that the contemporary superteams have organized to meet in person two weeks before the event, but I think this method can work just as well with only a few good friends.
A settled Standard was as gentle an introduction to Constructed as we could've hoped for. The format wouldn't be finished until M15 was spoiled, so we divided testing into a familiarization phase before, and a more dedicated playtesting and refinement phase after. I had tested for a recent Standard Grand Prix, and so I was able to outline the format and its three defining pillars. Mono-Black Devotion, and variants, were an attrition/card-advantage strategy distinguished by Thoughtseize to dismantle anything delicate and Pack Rat to demand immediate answers; U/W Control and variants were similarly based on attrition/card-advantage, but with a maindeck sweeper and the advantage of turning all creature removal into blanks; and Mono-Blue Devotion presented a synergistic and evasive aggro deck, with Master of Waves as a must-kill. It was clear that Mono-Black Devotion and its variants were going to be the most popular decks, but that all three strategies would be well-represented, robust, and diverse, making finding an unanticipated approach difficult. G/R Monsters had the popularity of a Tier 1 deck, but it looked second-rate in its current incarnation and wasn't having an impact at the highest competitive levels. I expected it wouldn't be a major player at the Pro Tour. Burn, Mono-Red Aggro, G/W Aggro, Mono-Black Aggro, and Green Devotion filled out the rest of the Tier 2.
Given Jackson's lack of experience with such an established format, we ruled out standardized specialist decks like U/W Control and Mono-Blue Devotion, where it would be especially difficult to gain an advantage over more experienced players. I was having a good amount of success with Mono-Black Devotion strategies and felt familiar and opinionated enough with it to develop a strong version and help Jackson learn it. We also made a list of the Tier 2 strategies that seemed like they would suit his playstyle. This included Burn as a straightforward break-in-case-of-emergency strategy, and G/W Aggro, which I remembered as a quietly awful matchup for Mono-Black Devotion and its variants based on flesh wounds sustained against a despicable local hustler, Geoff Ma. During initial playtests, however, both decks seemed underpowered relative to the Tier 1, especially U/W Control, and we set them aside for the time being.
The last Grand Prix of the format cemented the status quo, and M15 arrived without many surprises or game-changers: enemy painlands, aggressive red tools, Nissa, Worldwaker, and some marginal upgrades. I was testing Mono-Black and experimenting with degrees of splash into green and getting strong but not decisive results. I reasoned that a well-tuned and well-played stock deck might be the best that could be hoped for in such a defined format. If I was testing for myself, I probably would've played a deck like this, finished 54th place, and returned home with a few wads of crumpled twenties stuffed into the pockets of my ratty cargo pants.
Jackson was trying to catch up and learn the intricacies of the deck. I hadn't realized just how technical it was to a newcomer, often requiring precise sequencing to redeem a win, and sometimes even precarious advanced lines, e.g., knowing when to shelter Pack Rats from Detention Sphere or Bile Blight with a removal spell on scarce resources. Also, the payoff of being merely competitive with everyone else in the field wasn't especially attractive. Jackson continued to look for less exposed approaches that suited his style. While I wasn't convinced that such an option existed in this format - many players habitually disadvantage themselves by playing for position when they're capable of a forceful frontal attack - I encouraged him on the proven success of the Wescoe/Rietzl model of investing heavily in one's own strengths with the aim of spiking a finish at the top of the prize curve.
We spent some time developing B/G Bestow/Dredge but, although it had presentable numbers against Mono-Black and U/W Control, the Mono-Blue Devotion matchup was a write-off, and it was altogether too clunky with its requisite pile of two-mana do-nothing enablers. A dead end - but irresistible brewer's bait.
Finally, with two weeks to go, G/W Aggro, played by Andrew Boswell, lost in the finals of the Open Series in Baltimore, and Jackson suggested we take another look at it. If it was viable, it was the kind of deck he wanted to play, employing the skillset he'd built in Limited. I was skeptical since it had seemed so soft to both U/W Control and Mono-Blue Devotion, but Jackson said that he'd been going better than 50/50 against U/W Control in initial playtests. We sat down and played several games, and Jackson was right - the creature strategy had enough maneuverability and resilience to contend with its natural predator, the Wrath strategy. Mono-Black, as expected, was a very good matchup, but Mono-Blue remained an obvious gap. Tidebinder Mage was a tempo and value nightmare, Master of Waves needed to be answered immediately, and an active Thassa usually meant the race was over. We'd already begun the practice of combing Gatherer for overlooked solutions whenever we started developing a deck, and we looked for ways to address the Mono-Blue matchup. After a few middling options, we realized that Setassan Tactics - a stray 1 or 2-of in most sideboards - accomplished everything we wanted. Combined with Skylashers, the post-SB matchup was dominating, and all of a sudden G/W Aggro made sense: even if it was only 50/50 against Mono-Blue and U/W Control, if it was strong against Black builds, the choice just couldn't be bad. The Tier 2 the decks it was soft against, like G/R Monsters and Mono-Green Devotion, were trending down, and the decks it was strong against, like Mono-Red Aggro and Burn, were trending up.
Our confidence increased further with strong Magic Online results. While they were decent before, we were both crushing with G/W. Many people dismiss results against sometimes unrefined opposition but this testing has qualified utility: if you're not winning here, it's usually a sign that the deck has fundamental problems. I myself am even happy to battle against Magic Workstation zombies, but I decided that the teaching regarding third party Magic software might have to be saved for later, a dark secret of the trade.
Magic Workstation is the single best kept secret and most underutilized tool for Magic testing. It's software that provides a digital card table - imagine two decks of proxied cards with their text that have to be played manually, like in real life. The program is glitchy and has a number of features that shouldn't be taken too seriously - like, in my view, the ability to attach pictures to the proxies, and to mark the phases - but it lets you play Constructed for free and as new sets are spoiled. It's become easy to install (mwsgames.com), easy to learn once you learn the shortcuts, and has a deck database that, given the state of the Wizards website, is far superior to Gatherer. As well, once it gets going, the brisk and lightweight software is actually a refreshing change from Magic Online's bloated, leaky framework. It's easy to arrange to play with a friend remotely, which is best, but the software also provides a network for playing against random opposition. Well, random foreign street-youth, but it's better than nothing. Most pros don't know about the program or, if they do, refuse to dirty themselves with it. The willingness from someone who is actually qualified for the Pro Tour to toil in this sewer workshop is indicative of an obsessive characteristic of champions. Not unlike young Dan Clegg and Ben Rubin, playtesting by phone, or Patrick Chapin, testing an entire format with a deck of playing cards when the need presented itself. My favorite Workstation (then "Apprentice") story was when Kai Budde and Dirk Baberowski were on a plane to some Constructed PT. Kai has two decks out and wants to retry a specific sideboard card for a certain matchup, but Dirk's tired, and they've already played it a dozen times, and so he assures Kai that they have it covered. Dirk dozes off and when he wakes up, Kai's got a laptop open and two copies of Apprentice running, jamming games against himself with his Beatz blasting esoteric German techno loud enough to disturb the entire airplane.
It was around this point that Jackson underwent the test. The test will occur sometime before each of the first several major Constructed tournaments you prepare for. I warned Jackson beforehand that sometime close to the beginning of the tournament, he would be exposed to a new techy build, or be tempted to audible to something basic, or be somehow otherwise called to doubt and abandon his preparation. This is almost always a mistake; beneath the surface of the new option, there's usually something you've missed. Jackson went to test his G/W build with two local ringers at Stronghold Games. One of them was playing Mono-Black with four maindeck Lifebane Zombies and a sideboard packed with more spot removal than usual; par for the course, to be sure, but one of the harder builds for G/W.
I'm woken up from a dead sleep at 2am when Jackson calls me, down 4-3, sheepish, asking whether - if even the Mono-Black matchup isn't as solid as we thought - he should cut his losses and switch to a stock Burn list. One ringer had assured him that, sure, G/W was 51% against Mono-Black, but it was too much of a dog against Jund Monsters and Mono-Blue to be considered viable. The other, that he could get Jackson up to speed with Ravitz's Mono-Black list in just a few days. My opinion was that the build was a bit skewed relative to what I expected would be typical for Mono-Black - Nightveil Specters in the main, with a view to the mirror and the downtrend of green decks - and that the result was likely variance. Anyway, the benefit of a deck that suited his playstyle and was competitive with the field already put it above the other options. In any case, by the end of the session, the gameplay had evened out, and the moment of panic passed without repercussion.
In general, talented aspiring players should learn not to take conventional wisdom too seriously. Some players compile pick-orders or ingest the opinions of the pros and flaunt them as justification for remaining within the status quo. This method sets a ceiling on potential success - waiting around for someone else to make the next innovation instead of capitalizing oneself. Instead, players should question established wisdom, and seek to nurture their own preferences, even ones that are sometimes outrageous. Often, a local heavyweight will pull rank and dismiss an unorthodox instinct or observation without adequately assessing it. As a player, while you must be able to learn from your peers and betters, it's important that you insist that your questions receive an adequate answer, either through discussion or focused playtesting that satisfies your intellect. It's these questions, as they become pointed and refined, that will eventually reveal the hidden contours of the format and guide you out of the conventional bottleneck.
The following week, G/W Aggro won the Open Series in Kansas City in the hands of Scott Lipp. This unfortunately put the deck on the radar, but it did clue us in to the superior build. The key difference was dropping Temples altogether in favor of a 4/4/8/8 manabase that maximized efficiency. The deck had such a smooth curve that the tap drawback had been more trouble than it was worth, and sixteen sources of each color is perfectly sufficient. Lipp's maindeck numbers were closely in line with our own thinking, and so our main innovations were to the sideboard.
Sideboard construction is the single weakest part of the amateur game. Players tend to assemble an assortment of cards that have good general application and board them in and out according to feel, a little something for everyone. This is an inferior approach, but nearly universal at this level. Properly done, sideboard construction should be one of the most precise parts of the game. The goal, of course, is to maximize value - Win% against the field. When the circumstances are right, the best most straightforward approach is to aim to replace very low-value cards or packages of cards with very high-value ones, especially in matchups where there's room for great gains. This approach works best when the deck has a malleable core and good sideboard options available and when a format contains a small number of strategies, but it is always a useful exercise. The first step is to survey every expected matchup and to calculate where the greatest gains can be made with priority for the anticipated popularity of the various decks. Once this has been done across the board, the numbers can be fine-tuned, and the exact changes for every matchup figured out.
In the case of G/W Aggro, the maindeck cards were already strong against Mono-Black and U/W Control, and there were no sideboard options that would be a substantial improvement. On the other hand, there were plenty of cards that were mediocre against Mono-Blue and Mono-Red decks, and some fantastic sideboard options. Even factoring in the popularity of Mono-Black and U/W Control, the increase in Win % with a few marginal upgrades was far less significant than replacing weak cards with weighty ones in other matchups. Because the deck's core was so solid and the metagame so well-defined, versatile options like Deicide, Reclamation Sage, and Mistcutter Hydra weren't worth it. Our sideboard prioritized the Mono-Blue and Mono-Red matchups, where there was the most room to gain.
- 4 Experiment One
- 4 Fleecemane Lion
- 3 Loxodon Smiter
- 3 Soldier of the Pantheon
- 2 Sunblade Elf
- 4 Voice of Resurgence
- 3 Boon Satyr
Satisfied with our preparation, we left for the tournament.
We made the drive down to Portland on Thursday carrying precious cargo, "the hope of Vancouver," Sebastian Denno. Avoiding international air travel was a nice break from the usual routine. The pleasantness carried over into our accommodations - Jackson had booked an inexpensive but comfortable two-room backyard guesthouse through AirBnB in a former blue-collar district. I can't overstate the value of taking adequate care of the tournament peripherals like lodging, sleep, food, and company, but perhaps enough has been written about this aspect of preparation.
Jackson registered at the site, the physical embodiment of an online community. With the Pro Tour moving to a closed model to focus on video broadcasting, the event itself feels sedate in person compared to massive modern Grand Prix, but also the last-chance-qualifiers, all-nighters, and trivia-show circuses of old. In the thousand years of Pro Tour time since Kastles and Snepvangers roamed the Earth, a few species have proliferated while others have gone extinct. The ecosystem suffers a distinct lack of Hsiung and Szigeti. For the record, the treatment by the superteams of Magic slang pioneer Kenny Hsiung, who qualified for the event but did not attend, was disgraceful. When Hsiung asked if he could join their ranks, they requested a lengthy Magic biography which, after it was cobbled together, was somehow leaked to social networks before master Hsiung was thrown to the dogs.
We went for dinner at a lively tapas restaurant named Toro Bravo. We had grilled corn with cilantro pesto; empanada with chorizo, potatoes, mahon & piment basquaise creme fraiche; sauteed spinach with pine nuts & golden raisins; and split the house Bacon & Manchego Burger with romesco & pickled vegetables, along with some craft lagers.
We returned to the guesthouse, the sun setting in the garden, and figured out the last card or two of the Constructed list. We prepared sideboarding notes for quick reference between games. After, we walked to the gas station to buy some water and beer, discussing our rankings of the archetypes in Draft. Jackson's starting to get some nerves, afraid of an embarrassing result. Which in retrospect is peculiar to me - since most observers I think understand that anything can happen - but a healthy sign of his investment. All I can do is remind him of his competency.
We get back and have another drink and review Limited further. We had both played enough M15 drafts to be acquainted with the format but not enough to have processed it fully. I had brought a copy of all the M15 commons and uncommons, are we ranked them according to color, talking through the points where we diverged. We also laid out every possible color combination of the commons according to mana curve, to visualize the natural strengths and weaknesses of each archetype.
In general, if you're practicing for a Limited format, keeping a set of every common/uncommon somewhere nearby, where you can rifle through it periodically and build questions, is a good idea. For Constructed, similarly, it's good to have a format spoiler nearby to leaf through (maybe with absolute write-offs removed), and even to have your deck physically laid out somewhere for regular review. Another suggestion I made was to track every card the opponent plays in Limited according to mana curve - one drops slotted in one column, then two drops, and so on, with tricks and bombs underlined - which gives a detailed image of their deck at a glance during sideboarding. Parenthetically, Constructed decklists are a lot easier to "read" if organized horizontally in this way. When sketching deck ideas, I suggest writing them in this way.
I watch Jackson do a draft on Magic Online. After winning his first round, he retires to his chambers. One thing the AirBnB ad didn't mention is that a train route runs nearby. They whistle and chug in the distance. Soon, a rainstorm starts up, and at one point even thunder and lightning. I tinker on a draft of an article - an unintelligible screed about squatters in the house of Garfield and the caging and plucking of his golden goose - but then I abandon it and collapse onto my air mattress.