SCG Talent Search - From Russia with Love: Spies, Weapons, and SS-18
Hello! In my quest to become better at Magic and to share my experience with you I want to talk about another important aspect of coming up with the best decks: the people and the teamwork. I won't however leave you without fresh ideas and tech as usual and I'll drop a couple of lines about Mirrodin Besieged too. Just scroll down if that's all you're looking for (I know you are).
Magic is a game played by people. We just loooove to speak about cards decks techs matchups percentages and yadda yadda but let's not forget about the most important component of the game hands down: people. The players. The interlayer between cards and chair. One day I was monitoring MTGO Extended Dailies data contemplating the rise of Naya. The first Dailies two or three of them had rather surprising figures – the deck was clearly good posting solid results despite the small representation. Soon after the usual dilution began: the deck was recognized; the quantity of Naya started to increase and unsurprisingly the deck's performance figures dropped from outstanding to merely average. Why? Because of people.
Those first few who started to play Naya were experienced and creative enough to solidly build/upgrade the deck and make it tournament-viable. Of those who followed many were too impatient just copying the first list seen and hitting 8-mans or even PTQs. Mostly they didn't succeed… Why? They didn't work on their list; they didn't put thought into it; they weren't familiar with the deck. You can say “I have no time to work on every viable idea! Why not just grab the successful list?” and you'd be right. To a degree. A single person young and uncommitted still doesn't have the time to test everything he (or she) desires and even if he has time to test a deck or two he might not have time to keep track of hot tech or to X-ray the web looking for fresh ideas. This is why you must have a team. A gang. An assortment of associates if you will.
The minimum possible size of the team is two but I strongly don't recommend this especially if your testing partner is your girlfriend. A boyfriend is better but still a bad idea. Three is acceptable while four to six seems to be an ideal number. More than that – just not worth it. Making your Magic team as big as a football one is rather bad as all your secrets will eventually leak out which isn't acceptable. But remember that “leaking secrets isn't acceptable” doesn't necessarily mean “don't say anything Magic-related to anybody outside of the team” (and thinking this way is a rather common incurable illness). It's normal to share some thoughts with outsiders; only real secrets need to be hidden.
The key point of teamwork efficiency is the proper distribution of roles. The basic roles are:
1) The Scout
2) The Designer
3) The Developer
4) The Useless Guy
He provides external data of all sorts possible. He brings in decklists rumors techs article quotes etc. Scouting is time-consuming but very important work – just to avoid some traps. To quote a known pro Lukas Jaklovsky: “The unlosable game was suddenly lost. Sad face next time I'll at least look at some decklists.” Everybody and their brother knew about the Pestermite combo hidden in sideboards of Pyromancer Ascension decks as a backup plan but Lukas apparently did not. Scouting check failed.
So just find a guy who eats information instead of lunch and possibly dinner too and looks like he could actually starve to death without the Internet – well congrats he's your perfect scout.
If the Scout is the eyes and ears of your team the Designer is its sleepless mind. He's the one deciding which direction to explore and research and he's the one overloading email inboxes with rough decklists for developers to polish. You need to tweak your Valakut deck sideboard to adapt it to the local metagame? Task the designer. There's a PTQ a week after the Prerelease and everybody is completely clueless about what 75 to sleeve? Designer's your guy. Bring him some obscure rare from Shadowmoor to spur on his train of thought that all of you will ride to that blue envelope paradise.
He's the person who works on the lists proving your techs to be either useful or garbage. He usually spends more time playing MTGO than all the other members combined. Note that his feedback to the Scout is as important as his feedback to the Designer since the Developer is able to direct the Scout's efforts to find a proper tech or idea to fix something that needs to be fixed. He's the person who turns the Designer's “55 good cards and 5 free slots and 5 sideboarded cards” into a real tournament juggernaut.
The Useless Guy
What? The Useless Guy? Yes. Unless you and your friends are Wafo-Tapa Matignon and the Ruel brothers there's a plethora of reasons to supplement your team with a guy who isn't very useful during the testing process. He could be your driver for PTQ alcotrips or the host of your PTQ alcoparties or… he could just be your friend! Remember even if you are the truest Spike it's not forbidden to have friends and help them in Magic.
P.S. “Sometimes a wacky friend is what you need.” —Guillaume Matignon about Olivier Ruel
Roles are determined; assignment is done… But don't forget while the roles are important it's way more important for a person to be able to combine different roles. For example I'm a Scout (unsurprisingly) and Developer myself. And without a doubt everyone should have a grain of Useless Guy inside – just proves you're a human being not just a personification of role.
While there are exceptions where you primarily want to work in a group in order to prepare for events usually the team is more than just a group of testing dummies; it's your community your gang of friends. I'll try to bring life to the basic roles by using real people as examples.
Paranoid Data Miner
Analyst (as his real-life job suggests) hipster and… paranoid. Profoundly believes that the best deck choice for the PTQ automatically guarantees him a Pro Tour invitation. Made Nationals Top 8 with a homebrew deck well positioned against everyone except for his quarterfinals match. Made roughly a million PTQ Top 8s after that but was unable to attend the Pro Tour after his only win. Oh and brews perfect mojito.
Respected member of the local community well-known trader. A happy father. The calmest member of the team. Prevents teammates from committing suicide after going 0-2 drop by awarding them foil Ornithopters with witty handwritten comments on them. Became Doran at his only PT without losing calmnessandself-irony. Will win his next Pro Tour unless he actually forgets to go and play his matches fascinated by glowing Japanese foils at a trading post.
He's the real knight of the pen and we all love to listen to him especially when he starts discussing the techs or anything else with himself (probably because we don't want to speak and break his self-dialogue). He has the strongest moral values among us all and ensures that we do nothing even remotely unethical. He has an affection for “pet cards” (Doran Knight of the Reliquary or the like) which is impermissible for Spike (all of us are obviously Spikes) so he usually plays deck he likes over optimal choices.
The Duke (unofficially “Emo Pyromancer”)
Karmic brother of the Paranoid Data Miner but less paranoid and less of a data miner. Red mage. Dredge player. I-changed-my-deck-five-minutes-before-the-tournament player. Has a tendency to shut others out and collapse but is nearly unstoppable on a good streak. Hospitable host of our alcohol and PTQ parties.
The-guy-who-remembers-completely-everything including that marginal tech mentioned in Chapin's article two years ago which was rediscovered by Paranoid Data Miner. Incidentally the least experienced of the team and frankly speaking just a plain poor player from a technical standpoint. Never won anything except for one GPT has a reasonably sized collection of one-win-short fails on all levels – from FNM to PTQ to Grand Prix. The main source of rumors and external data – just because he's the most talkative and the nicest guy on the team.
All these people are a well-formed tool for team testing drinking and just gabbing about everything. My team.
Side note — Thanks to my teammates for their friendship for writing about me and for their self-irony. And additional thanks to Paranoid Data Miner who will never forgive me for my denying to enrich my article with his 300-word ode to himself. — End of side note
You can see that there's no pure Scout or pure Useless Guy among us. Each of us is able to fulfill different roles. For example we all are Scouts to a degree and our entire team is named “Sputnik.” For those of you who are not familiar with this word here's a little Twitter conversation:
@amartology : to English-speaking followers: Do you actually know word "Sputnik"? Without Google etc.
@torerotutor : @amartology I just know it as the first satellite in orbit not sure what the actual word means.
@amartology : @torerotutorIt was everything I wanted to know. "Sputnik" means "Satellite" in Russian (alongside with other meanings). Thank you)
@torerotutor : @amartology I'll be your cultural guinea pig anytime. :)
@jdbeety : @amartology Traveler or something similar?
@amartology : @jdbeetyActually it means "co-traveler" and "satellite" in Russian and I think it would mean "The Very First Soviet Satellite" in English
@mixedknuts : @amartology We also use it as slang to represent sundry languages. "Hey assholes stop speaking sputnik. English only." Likely from Rounders.
By the way this conversation taught me about the “Guinea Pig” idiom (we use ordinary rabbits here in Russia) so the morale of the story is: I can gain new data from almost everything – just like a real reconnaissance satellite. And speaking of reconnaissance it's time to look at teamwork in this field.
Reconnaissance and espionage
Pretty often proper deck choice is strongly metagame-dependent. When going to a big open tournament like a GP or SCG Open it's hard to guess metagame precisely but if you're planning to attend a lesser tournament (“lesser” doesn't mean “small”; it means “relatively small” – most relevant for you European guys out there with 70-person PTQs) you can gather large amounts of useful data before the tournament.
Last weekend there was a Nagoya PTQ here in Moscow and the week before that we had a $1K Extended tournament. So our team started to gather some data a week or two before that. Firstly I began monitoring local MTG-related web forums and keeping track of cards other people were asking to borrow. Secondly our Uncle Doran began to aggregate trading post data informing us about cards people were asking to buy. Thirdly other team members went on to attend some local Extended tournaments and scout the decks already played in the local club. I aggregated all this data. Before arriving at our $1K Open we already knew the deck choices of 45 players out of the 62 who attended.
This little story shows how different roles serve a common goal: metagame prediction. Obviously there were mistakes – a couple of people had changed the deck at the last moment and so on – still that day I knew what all my six opponents were playing before we even sat down to face each other. And mulligan decisions based on that knowledge won me at least one game. Not to mention it allowed me to make some decklist changes using proper metagame prediction (like playing Kitchen Finks maindeck in my Bant Haterator among the sea of Jund decks).
Hey dudes in Moscow! Big Brother is actually watching you! Every word you say will be used against you! But to be serious unless our Paranoid Data Miner sticks around witha gunpointed atmyhead I'll gladly exchange your data for my data and I'll never fail to listen to good advice.
Pretty puppies and double-edged swords
The best most common deck-related advice I've ever heard and repeated is “just don't play this deck.” Just that simple. Reasons? Varies. Sometimes people just toy with stillborn ideas. Sometimes they try to play the top deck of the previous week not realizing it's already very poorly positioned in the current metagame. Sometimes they stubbornly stick to the deck that doesn't fit their play style.
You often hear phrases like “all Japanese pros came with [insert deck name here]” but not all of us are good enough to play any deck. The solution? Pay more attention to your own preferences. By the way I can't remember any single tournament where I and my teammates sleeved up three copies of the same deck.
Yet this is a double-edged sword. Props: easier testing (we always have a good gauntlet) more adequate results of testing (have you ever noticed that people usually play worse when piloting “just a gauntlet deck?"). Cons: larger amount of co-work (because we need to create three of four times more tech) and the danger of pet decks (usually leading its pilot into dead alleys).
Playing pet decks is obviously bad. But you should separate “the pet deck” from “one of the many good choices.” It's a rare situation when there's just one optimal unquestioned deck choice for the tournament (like GP Columbus '07 aka GP FlashHulk which led to Flash being banned soon afterwards) so if you have a choice you should definitely play the deck that can exploit your strong traits. No I didn't say “the deck you like”; I said “the deck that can exploit your strong traits.”
Let me share with you the conversation I had with my friend Andrey Kochurov former Russian National Champion after a pint or more of wonderful Belgian beer and an unsuccessful PTQ:
Me: I have no idea what deck to pick up for the next PTQ. I like my current Bant deck but I failed to win and I see that I probably won't win the next event with it either.
Him: Is there a combo in the format? Valakut? Wonderful! You can do strong math but you're somehow weak when it comes to delicate and complex in-game decisions. Bant is good but it forces you to face such decisions too often. Just pick Valakut do the math and try to combo them out as fast as possible – it's that which you can do very well.
It was twelve hours before two Valakut decks played in the finals of Grand Prix Atlanta.
I promised myself not to write about this land again but now it's the prime time to do so and to discuss some interesting deckbuilding decisions. You can find decklists for the Atlanta Top 8 here . I'm going to talk about Christian Valenti's deck.
The first thing to note is the comeback of Lightning Bolt. Volcanic Fallout is still good but sometimes you need to deal with Fauna Shaman or Lotus Cobra immediately and if possible without a huge tempo loss (because the only way to win against Emrakul or a bunch of Vengevines is to combo out as fast as possible). While newcomer Slagstorm will definitely be the most common removal in Valakut in Standard I expect Lightning Bolt and Volcanic Fallout to stay solid choices for Extended. But Slagstorm will definitely be a solid replacement for the Firespout in the sideboard – mainly because of its ability to hit players after eighteen combo damage.
Before the huge metagame change that made Faeries just another good deck I tried the R/G Valakut deck ported from Standard with minimum changes. I played zero Scapeshifts three Avengers of Zendikar and four Summoning Traps. I played Overgrown Battlement and Farhaven Elf instead of Explore and Harrow. While countering Harrow is the meanest thing Faeries or Control can do to you carelessly countering Farhaven Elf normally leads into Summoning Trap and teaches them to be extra cautious in game 2. In a Jund- and Naya-filled metagame Summoning Trap is worse than Scapeshift – just because Avenger is slower – but who knows how the metagame will shift? So keep Summoning Trap in mind while I return to our singleton Avenger.
Sweet bonus is that Avenger is so good with another super-secret-super-techy animal hiding in the sideboard – Spellbreaker Behemoth. By the way this ancient monster is just larger than Vengevine for the same cost; he deals with Mistbind Clique and he can't be killed by any Faeries removal except for the rarely played Doom Blade. With a little help from four Guttural Responses and four Obstinate Baloths the deck becomes well positioned against Faeries Jund and Naya at the same time. The only truly bad matchup is G/W Trap which is so unstable that it can lose to itself as often as it loses to you so I'd definitely recommend you play this deck if you have a PTQ this weekend and aren't afraid of Emrakul. By the way Emrakul is able to kill you not just with annihilator and a 15/15 body. There are more ways…
Emrakul Besieged and more
Imagine the situation: one sunny winter day Data Miner plays an Extended 8-man queue and gets crushed by… Cragganwick Cremator. Yes I didn't know such a card even existed before he told me. Data Miner's reaction? Post “OMFG! CREMATOR!” to the mailing list and make a long-term investment by buying fifty copies of it on MTGO. Sure one day this deck will be as powerful as Faeries and Jund combined and he'll be a millionaire. He'll literally swim in gold coins like Scrooge McDuck. Fast forward to two hours later he sees the price of Cremators rising by a half-cent and sells them back as other team members make sure he understands the utter hopelessness of this deck.
Recently I've read at least two articles named “A bunch of crazy Extended brews” and want to note that both authors missed important pieces of craziness. Are you still with me? That Cragganwick Cremator deck contained Emrakul (cool to discard) Demigod of Revenge (cool to discard too despite the nonbo with the Eldrazi) and a bunch of burn spells supporting the Spinerock Knoll to cast Emrakul. Big Fat Guys and burn in one package! Whoa! The sweetest Timmy Christmas deal ever.
And oh about Mirrodin Besieged and more. The more is another “hit and win” creature spoiled in Mirrodin Besieged – Blightsteel Colossus. I think he looks like a SS-18 “Satan” ballistic missile. I won't speak about him being awesome or abominable – it's all about personal preferences. The thing is I wanted him not just to look as powerful as a ballistic missile but to be as powerful. And I think he could be broken given the right circumstances.
I don't know if turn-4 Colossus will be as devastating as turn-4 Emrakul (who may be the Death Star?) but it's tempting to try. There was an attempt to pair Shape Anew with Trinket Mages and Stoneforge Mystics fetching singleton Darksteel Axe but there were some glaring problems (countered Axe = lose) and more importantly there was no worthy target to Shape Anew into. Honestly are we trying to build a sophisticated combo deck just to win with Wurmcoil Engine? Just cast it dude!
By the way Master's Call seems to be one of the most interesting cards in Mirrodin Besieged at least for me. Primarily because I have a collection of foil Myrs (brought home from my GP trips); secondarily because this card fits very well into two different and potentially powerful combo decks: Extended Polymorph and Standard Shape Anew. This card allows us to save our “Polymorph fodder” from sorcery-speed removal all the while helping us to combat Consuming Vapors and keep The Big Daddy alive.
Despite being indestructible Blightsteel Colossus still has a wide array of cards that can deal with it which is important due to his summoning sickness. The only instant threat to avoid is Into the Roil and the sorcery ones are Revoke Existence Journey to Nowhere the freshly printed Leonin Relic-Warder (hello kitty! See you populating sideboards soon) good old Jace the Mind Sculptor and forgotten goodies like Oust (Brian Kibler's favorite). But luckily we have a free Voidslime for everything threating our giant pet.
We're allowed to tap out to win counter wars for the Shape Anew. We're allowed to cast Shape Anew on turn 4. We're allowed to corrupt the entire world with glistening oil. And don't forget that you're allowed to cast Day of Judgment before attacking. So here's the very first draft of the deck. It's very rough obviously but the idea is there:
8 more good cards
Good luck to you and your friends at tournaments you'll try to win with the help of teamwork!