Magic is a hard game.
If you're a solid player one of the things that you've probably been told again and again is that you need to leverage your play skill against your opponents. We're at a point in the game right now that if you've at a tournament you could well play against people that have been playing competitively for five years. For ten years. For fifteen. Even players that you might remember as being not great a year or two ago if they dedicate themselves can surprise you with the level of skill that they've acquired.
These days if you go to a PTQ if you're doing well at some point you'll start playing against people who aren't just taking the tournament seriously but they came to win. Obviously not everyone can win. In fact when you go to any given tournament it's certainly possible that the person that won it got there through a combination that relies more heavily on the “luck” side of the equation than the “skill” side. This is a game of variance; this happens. But the fact of the matter is a large number of people show up to events prepared.
If you're one of them getting edges is one of the things that you try to do. A slight sideboard change might give you a +4% shift in one match. A bad night's sleep might give you an across the board -5% (or more). Some unusual insight into a matchup might give you an advantage (+3%) that really messes up an opponent particularly if they are inexperienced with the matchup (-8%). All of these numbers are of course arbitrary assignments I'm making for the purposes of illustration. They're oversimplifications. But they do at least give a sense of what's going on with these choices.
One of the most common pieces of advice I've heard from expert players when it comes to leveraging a shift in play skill into a tournament is simple: don't attack. Or rather play a controlling or a combo deck rather than a deck whose main purpose is to attack. Their contention is that this is the best way to leverage skill.
This is wrong.
Red decks very often get this exact kind of criticism. “Oh it's a deck to prepare against so that you can beat it but it isn't a deck that would seriously win a tournament.”
I know I've won several larger tournaments with Red. Michael Jacob won a Nationals. David Price and Masashiro Kuroda won a Pro Tour. Kuroda's deck was much more a mid-range control deck but those other decks were very much beatdown decks.
Beatdown at large (and red in specific) often get knocked as being very mindless decks that are basically on auto-pilot and so playing them is a waste of your talent. If you want to leverage your play skill these critics claim you should play another deck.
In some ways there is an element of truth to this. If a deck will win by turn 4 or 5 you have fewer turns to apply your skill to the game. Compared to a deck that wins on turn 12 or later the skilled player has more time to influence the game in their favor with their play skill. This is one way of framing the situation.
Another way of thinking about the situation is how much more important each and every decision is if your game is going to potentially be over by turn 4 or 5. In interactive games of Magic (where one player isn't screwed/flooded for example) your opponent tends to attempt to mount resistance. And when they do a mistake like laying the wrong land (which might not look like a mistake to a casual observer) can make all the difference.
Pacing is a great example of this kind of work that a beatdown player needs to be aware of. Against some opponents on turn 2 it can actually make sense to do nothing even if it means a slower clock against a goldfish. Remember your opponent is not a goldfish.
Magic has gotten to a point with its decklists that they tend to become incredible fine-tuned monstrosities that are incredibly potent — to the point that nearly everyone in contention in a tournament has a great list particularly for the more explored formats. The “right” choice of a deck has a lot less to do with what kind of strategic archetype a deck is and far more with what the metagame of that tournament is and what the individual player is best at playing.
One of the ways we bias ourselves in our testing is pretty simple: we have bad opponents. This isn't to say that our playtesting partners are necessarily bad players across the board. But when someone is playing against a beatdown deck a lot of the time they end up playing against the person sitting there who has been conscripted into playing it and really doesn't know how to leverage the deck in order to get wins. People think they beat beatdown decks a lot more than they really do.
Similarly with a deck like Faeries people play against someone who isn't actively good with Faeries and come to the conclusion that they have a good Faeries matchup — but the reality of the matchup is actually closer to negative than they realize.
In both of these cases the bias comes out of a situation in which the person playing the test deck (the “enemy” deck) doesn't have a full grasp of what their deck is capable of. We're far more aware of this situation when it is happening on the back of a Faeries player oftentimes because a Faeries player's leveraging of the skill seems so much more apparent and obvious. The beatdown player on the other hand merely seems “lucky.”
If we look at the recorded matchups that we have up here at StarCityGames.com we can see the way that so far the format has shaken out. (I've covered this topic last time when I described how Extended looks overall and how to use the past to brainstorm new decks .) Splitting up the archetypes informally into simple categories of “more aggressive” and “more controlling” decks is actually fairly illuminating.
- Faeries: 1112235555999
- U/W Control: 35555555999
- Wargate: 35555
- 5-Color Control: 2
- EsperLark: 2
- R/G Valakut: 5
- Wizards: 5
More Aggressive :
- Red: 1135999
- Mythic Conscription: 12335559
- Naya: 123355
- Hideaway: 13555999
- Jund: 22333335559
- Elves: 39
- Splinter-Rug: 3
- WW: 5
- Steel: 5
- Ooze: 5
- BW Tokens: 9
This list marks the finishes in PTQs so far recorded. Every number corresponds to a finish; 1=1st 2=2nd 3=3rd/4 th 5=5th-8th 9=9th-16th.
Now obviously these categories are gross oversimplifications… But one of the things that seems very illustrative to me is how at least thus far it seems clear that in the current Extended red isn't just a deck to be trying to beat — it's definitely a deck that you should be considering playing (among of course many many good and viable decks).
Sam Black recently said that he was excited to see people turning towards red in order to “take advantage” of the perceived domination of Faeries in the current Extended metagame . From Sam's perspective (a perspective I largely share) the current crop of aggressive red decks that have been popping up all heavy on the disposable elementals like Hellspark Elemental and Hell's Thunder (and Ball Lightning) were particularly vulnerable to a good Faerie player who was prepared for red. And I think he's right.
Here is last I heard Sam's Faeries list (played by fellow Madisonian Matt Severa):
Now to my mind Faeries is a deck that is particularly powerful in how it's able to shift a few cards here or there to shift the focus of the deck to a different opponent adjusting easily to the week-to-week shifts of the metagame. Any deck can do this of course — but I've always felt as though Faeries was able to particularly make use of this even when it doesn't have much in the way of card drawing.
A large reason for this in my opinion is that the very accumulative power of Faeries over a game in which it builds advantage upon advantage in small steps taking even slightly bigger advantages just tends to nail the coffin all the more. I'm sure that by the time this article gets printed Sam's list will have shifted several cards and by the week after that shifted again.
If we contrast this with the deck that would win that self-same tournament we get the other side of the equation.
One of the big things with this deck as opposed to Faeries builds is that the sideboard doesn't really do much to change the character of the deck with the exception of Koth of the Hammer. Leyline Guttural Response and Smash to Smithereens are much more direct answers to particular issues. Volcanic Fallout seems largely there to lay out a Faeries opponent or occasional function as super-mini-Earthquake. Koth of the Hammer on the other hand takes the deck in a different direction setting up a kind of longevity against a deck that might otherwise tear apart creatures or forcing a deck into attacking that might more commonly really want to sit back.
Obviously this deck is good enough that it was able to win a 142-person PTQ. That doesn't mean that I'm enamored that much with it though.
As it's built it's clearly built to aggressively tear apart Elves and Birds. I think the thing that I don't really like about the deck is that it seems forced largely into trying to get the game over with quickly and it doesn't have much in the way of longevity if things go to hell. Figure of Destiny at its ultimate is about the only path that the deck presents (though sideboard Koth of the Hammer potentially does that task).
I started thinking about what I could do to make a deck that would be able to have that same flexibility that I loved in the Faeries lists. Sam was already pointing to this Indianapolis list as exactly the kind of deck that he was hoping to play against. And looking at it I definitely felt like I agreed.
Initially I started exploring the idea of a deck that was based on some of the decisions that had been made by Matt Sperling and then incorporating the Demigod Red build that Michael Jacob used to win US Nationals.
When I brought this up at least one person brought up how much the deck required Skred but this actually didn't seem at all credible to me. Skred was a great card for the deck but losing it didn't seem like it was the end of the world. There isn't a Tarmogoyf running around that you're trying to fight; for the most part the bigger monsters just didn't seem like they were too far out of reach. The closest to this was perhaps Knight of the Reliquary — but even there a surprisingly large amount of the time he was small enough to handle or if he wasn't he was coming to the party pretty late.
Ashenmoor Gouger was surprisingly effective. But what I was discovering about Gouger was that it was really just that potential for four toughness that was making it as effective. I started out with Kargan Dragonlord as a potential faux Gouger and was immediately sold.
Demigod Red by Adrian Sullivan
The following version of my Demigod Red was played by Andrew Shrout to make the semifinals of a PTQ this last weekend.
I would just miss the Top 8 of my PTQ the same weekend largely I believe on the back of a mana-screwed game 2 and 3 but that's a part of how Magic works. Andrew's build was partly built the way it was because he was missing a few cards – another Figure of Destiny belongs in the deck likely over a Burst Lightning.
The sideboard of course is something that can be shifted around depending on what you fear to face. This board is built with more emphasis on green and blue opponents clearly with the extra burn the Marks and then the Guttural and Fallouts. Your mileage may vary.
As for the main deck (assuming you're running the fourth Figure over the third Burst) you're basically talking about a deck that combines the ability to put down an incredibly fast clock on the low end of the curve but has the mana to support an end game that is incredibly resilient. Life gain isn't something that the deck cares that much about (other than in the way it can shape a race); far more important is the stability of a board position. This is a deck that can absolutely fight that fight.
One of the strange things about the deck is just how mana hungry it is. Eventually I ended up at twenty-six lands and I'm frustrated with that but unwilling to go to twenty-five. The deck was initially at twenty-five lands and that felt insufficient. Often it feels as though the most difficult games are ones in which the deck stumbles on mana not the ones where I'm drawing too many mana (though that will occasionally happen).
Andrew's path through the tournament went like this (according to him):
I know that I'm not able to make it down to Atlanta this weekend but I wish I were. I've racked up a 42-11 record in PTQs and queues on Magic Online in the last eight or so days with the deck. An 80% win percentage is pretty fabulous (though obviously this number is influenced by the potential mistakes of opponents that have happened). It seems exceedingly powerful and I'm really excited for its ability to have a very strong early game and a very strong late game. This is the kind of thing that I've tended to build into my red decks in their sideboarding and so it is exciting that that is possible in the main deck (largely because of the “build your own megamonster” nature of the creatures). One of the risks of doing this is shifting your deck into too much of a midrange aggro deck instead of being a more pure aggro deck but this deck seems to manage to be able to have its cake and eat it too.
Certainly it isn't as pure as the deck that won Indiana which definitely means that it has weaknesses in comparison (my Jund matchup count for example is 5-3 while I bet that its Jund matchup is probably better) but I like overall how much more flexible my build of Red is by shifting it fully into being a Demigod Red deck.
If you'd like to ask me any questions about this list you should make sure to contact me on my official Facebook page for Magic. I check in on it very regularly and generally also look for help from others in the community as well. I know that after talking to people on my page I was talked out of using Fulminator Mage in the sideboard of this deck. Even though I have less time to dedicate to playing as much Magic as I'd like I always try to make sure I have my finger on the pulse of things and that's certainly one way.
As more and more of the spoiler for the new set comes out I'm sure that the Magic world is going to radically change very quickly. Strike while the iron is hot! This deck is sizzling and you should take advantage of it while you still can!
Until next time