More Ways To Win - The Art Of Netdecking
I remember when I was a teenager and went to Magic tournaments all the time. Now that I'm an adult, many things in my life have changed, but Magic and Magic tournaments have been one glorious constant. I'm still trying to figure out what the best deck to play is every week, I'm still agonizing over that last sideboard card, and I'm still succeeding sometimes, and falling short others. Even though Magic has gone through a couple of major rules changes in this time and probably a hundred new mechanics, it still feels like the same game that I love. One thing does seem very different to me though, and that is the presence of the netdeck.
When I first started playing, nobody used the Internet very much for their tournament decks. It was hard to even find a good deck on the Internet anyway. Most strategy sites were little more than places where just about anyone could post some, usually awful, decklist. Sometimes you could find inspiration for your own deck of doom, but the lists were not the polished decks that we see today, honed through a large tournament nearly every week.
The metagame was purely a local one, and what was going on in the big picture of the Magic world hardly impacted it. Maybe it was different for you if you played back then, but that was my experience. Most players who play these days are playing in a different world, a world where all the best decks are right at your fingertips, and you actually know they're good decks because you recognize many of the names behind them.
I think that innovation is still highly rewarded though, but it's become a kind of specialized skill that very few people possess. I don't think that's just a Magic issue; society at large seems to encourage conformity. If you look at it in terms of incentives (and if you read the book or saw the movie Freakonomics, then you know that incentives matter in all areas of life), there are often huge reasons why we should and do conform. In the Magic world, if you're just an average player who knows what the best deck is at the moment, you play it a lot and get to know all the matchups; you are usually light years ahead of the genius who's brewing the next big thing, at least in terms of time.
There is a point where this is no longer true, where the innovating genius begins to get a real edge over the rest of the field. The problem is that it takes far more hours of work than it does to log onto a strategy site and copy a list. That's where the incentive problem comes in.
Everyone knows that IF they can come up with a deck that catches everyone by surprise, IF they can slant it towards beating the popular decks, and IF it is at least semi-powerful enough that it can contend with some of the random decks that often show up, they will have a better chance of winning than most other people at the tournament. However, those ifs are actually a pretty tall order most of the time, and, even if you succeed, is the percentage you're gaining worth the time you're putting in? Not to mention, that element of surprise may be good for only one tournament anyway.
At the end of the day, you end up putting in a lot of hours on a deck that MAYBE is good enough. For a lot of people, it's just not worth it. They work or go to school or don't have an extensive playtest group.
I just can't say enough how much everything in Magic is about context. I've only been writing for Star City Games for a short while now, and I must've said this in half a dozen different ways already.
Sure Phyrexian Obliterator might be good in the abstract, eventually, but he's just not right now, and who knows, maybe not ever. Like I said in my last article I don't think Consecrated Sphinx is where it's at in an environment when Doom Blade is the removal of choice.
The merit of an individual card has to be figured out by looking at the cards around it. Lightning Bolt may be the best burn spell ever, but how would it feel to play it if nearly every creature had four toughness?
Zvi Mowshowitz famously cut River Boa from his Fires of Yavimaya deck because the Fires decks wanted to curve out with a Birds or Elf into a three-drop. So while the Boa was good in the abstract, it didn't fit the deck's plan.
I cut Tsabo's Web from my U/B Nether-Go deck during that time period because I didn't feel that the web protected me from the most fearsome Fires draw: Birds on 1, Rishadan Port on 2, tap my land, and Blastoderm on 3, while I was on the draw. I faced enormous pressure to conform, but I'm proud to say that I didn't, and I went to Regionals that year and played against Fires about every other round, without ever losing a match to it.
So, going back to this idea of context, what do you imagine I was talking about in this article? You see, there is a difference between the best deck in an abstract sense and the best deck, for you, right now, this week. It's all about context and sometimes, within the current context, it is just correct to get online and copy a deck.
If you haven't read Patrick Chapin's article on Information Cascades, I suggest you look into it. I consider it among the top five Magic articles of all time. Articles like his are a great reason to have Premium (cue the trolls posting how I'm just saying this because I write for Star City Games—newsflash, there is actually no incentive for me to say this; I say it simply because it's true).
Anyway, there will always be people who read something and say “I can't believe I paid money to read this!” but some writers consistently deliver, and he's one of them. Just one article like “Information Cascades” more than makes up for any other articles that might not be my cup of tea (and there honestly aren't very many of those).
In his article, one of the things he looks at is how copying a deck might be the best strategy for anyone looking to win a tournament in the short-term, while innovating helps you to win more over the long-term. I found this idea really useful and interesting.
So many players spit on net decks and the players that consistently play them, while other players copy all the time, without ever having an original thought.
Another idea that you'll probably encounter a lot in my articles is this idea of balance, in particular, keeping a balanced perspective. Now Patrick's article has a point of view that I can get behind. We aren't getting emotional about the issue (maybe because we lose to net decks every FNM), and we aren't trying to bring some strange idea of morality into it (net decks are immoral you know…). Instead, we are just being pragmatic. We want to win, and we're trying to figure out what strategies will give us the best chance.
In the book, Rules for Radicals by Saul Alinsky, he says: “The man of action views the issue of means and ends in pragmatic and strategic terms. He has no other problem; he thinks only of his actual resources and the possibilities of various choices of action. He asks of ends only whether they are achievable and worth the cost; of means, only whether they will work.”
Patrick Chapin recommended that I read the book Playing to Win by David Sirlin, and I followed his advice. I now consider it an absolute must-read for any competitive gamer. Here's a relevant excerpt that goes along with what I'm talking about:
“The first step in becoming a top player is the realization that playing to win means doing whatever most increases your chances of winning. That is the true definition of playing to win. The game knows no rules of ‘honor' or of ‘cheapness.' The game only knows winning and losing.
A common call of the scrub is to cry that the kind of play in which one tries to win at all costs is ‘boring' or ‘not fun.' Who knows what objective the scrub has, but we know his objective is not truly to win. Your objective is good and right and true, and let no one tell you otherwise.”
In my Grand Prix: Montreal report I got a lot of flak for a very small part of the entire report, where I talk about people asking their opponent questions through friendly banter, in an effort to gain some kind of an edge.
While I don't think that every person who is friendly is trying to gain an edge, you are living in a fantasy world if you think that some people aren't doing this, especially at a major event. Moreover, there's nothing wrong with it at all. It's not something you should be worried about or bothered by. It doesn't mean everyone is fake. It is entirely possible, even likely, that someone who is being friendly really means it, but at the same time they're still trying to size you up. The two things—friendliness and looking for information—really aren't mutually exclusive. In the latter case, the person is just trying to be observant. And that's fine; just make sure that you're observant too.
I remember watching a movie about poker where a player let another player observe a false “tell” and later used that to trick their opponent into thinking they were bluffing. Just be aware that these things happen and don't shoot the messenger (namely me!) for bringing this information to you.
So, back to the matter at hand, if you're playing to win, you can't rule out an option that might give you the best chance of winning: either a net deck or some rogue creation.
Now we get to the real heart of my article this week: “I don't have time to test, I don't have a group to test with, there's a tournament coming up, and it looks like I'm on the net deck plan; how do I know which deck to net deck? Should I change any cards around? Since I don't have infinite time, how can I maximize my gains with the time that I do have?”
This is always THE question of questions. As I talked about changing priorities in my last article, it was buried in there as: “What is the best place to put my energy, right now?” If you get in the habit of asking that question, you'll find it's more useful than helping you win more at Magic, but you're here, that's what we're talking about, so let's try to answer it.
First, consider the metagame. If you have one place to put your time, I think this is it. If you had the time to play against all the popular decks and really get a feel for them, that would be the ideal, but you honestly don't have to do that as much as many people would have you believe. Practice games tend to have a kind of diminishing returns. There is not much you're going to learn two hundred hours in that you didn't learn at one hundred hours, for example.
On the other hand, “theory-crafting” only gets you so far.
I would say at a bare minimum, you should check out some tournament reports and the top deckslists that can be found on most Magic websites. I mostly use two sites: www.magicthegathering.com for the PTQ, Grand Prix, and Pro Tour decks, and Star City Games because of its huge Open Series.
Sure, you might find the next best thing from an 8-person FNM somewhere, but the events people care the most about winning are going to be the ones where there is a good payout and a chance at glory. Therefore, those are the kind of tournaments that draw more players, ones that tend to bring their A-game.
It's important to gauge not just where the metagame is now but where it's going. Often, last week's decklist doesn't cut it for this week. You want to play something that people might not have had time to adapt to yet, while being prepared for likely shifts.
A couple of weeks ago, I won a tournament called the “Standard Championship,” which was really just a small event held here in VT at a local anime convention called Bakuretsu Con. Despite that, the prize structure was actually really good. First place was two boxes of Innistrad or $150 guaranteed, regardless of the number of players who showed up, and I only expected about the attendance and players of an FNM.
I had been planning on going to a PTQ that weekend, and so I didn't have a Standard deck. Now, all of a sudden, I needed one. What should I do? What was the best place to put my energy? With less than a day to come up with something, I focused on finding a known deck that might catch people unprepared on the local level.
I'm known for playing blue decks a lot, and I've been advocating Solar Flare. I listed the deck I would've played at States had I been able to go, and I figured people would automatically assume that I was playing something like that, might even think they knew my list card for card. The funny thing is that Solar Flare did win our States, and I do stand by the list that I posted in my last article, but the times, they are a'changing. Brian Sondag saw to that with his SCG Open win with Wolf Run Ramp, entirely warping the Standard format around it.
Now, as an aside, I have to point to Brian as an example of what can go right when you play something rogue. I am not advocating JUST playing net decks by any means. Remember: balance. But it's also important to point out that his deck was only rogue for one tournament. Now it's on everyone's radar as the deck to beat.
I was losing to Wolf Run Ramp with my old version of Solar Flare, and I was pretty sure I could beat Wolf Run with my new version of Solar Flare. The only problem was that Wolf Run was changing too.
Enter Dungrove Elder.
Like, who, honestly, can say they didn't know that guy would find a home? It took a while, but it finally happened. The night before the Standard Championship, I was pretty sure that I wanted to be the one playing Dungrove Elder, not Snapcaster Mage (as much as it pains me to say that!). This change to Wolf Run was unlikely to see widespread adoption right off among the local FNM crowd (FNMs typically shift a lot slower), and people hadn't started writing about it en masse like they are now. So while I figured people might be better equipped to fight Wolf Run, I thought that this version would beat the strategies they'd be throwing at it, while additionally being better suited for the pseudo-mirror match.
While most of you probably know Owen Turtenwald's list by now, just for completeness sake, I'm including it below:
- 4 Solemn Simulacrum
- 1 Wurmcoil Engine
- 1 Acidic Slime
- 4 Birds of Paradise
- 4 Dungrove Elder
- 2 Llanowar Elves
- 4 Primeval Titan
Back when Psychatog was one of the decks to beat, people were tuning their decks to do just that, and a couple of decks in particular, Goblin Trenches and Mono-Black Control, could beat a version of Psychatog. But then Kai Budde began advocating a different version of Psychatog as well, one with Nightscape Familiars and Deep Analysis, for starters. All of a sudden, Psychatog was favored again.
I remember winning a tournament with Psychatog, just slaughtering the Trenches and MBC players, who were so confident in their victory over me because my deck had the up-to-the-minute tech, and they had simply not bothered to try to keep up with the evolution of the metagame.
Now, the Dungrove Elder version of Wolf Run has become The Next Big Thing ™. So what is the next step beyond that?
How about Brian Braun-Duin's top 16 list from a couple of weeks ago:
I played a similar list at my local FNM right after the Standard Championship (which was 33% Wolf Run…), and, though I didn't win the event, I did play against Wolf Run 3 of the 5 rounds and felt like my matchup was ridiculously good. I feel as though I easily could have won if some poor luck and one really poor matchup hadn't gotten in my way.
I think it's important to realize that it was the right deck to copy, even though it didn't win the SCG Open, and I didn't win my FNM. You see, when people talk about being “results-oriented,” they aren't trying to say that results don't matter at all; it's just that there have to be a lot of results for them to really be statistically significant. Brian Braun-Duin “only” made top 16 (as though that's an easy accomplishment), but how many times have we lost a match because we got paired against our one worst matchup or because we got mana-screwed or mulliganed to 4? Looking at a list of who placed where does not actually tell us what happened in the tournament.
Also, when we talk about statistically significant numbers, we have to look at the number of players who play a deck. This is why players like Patrick Chapin share all kinds of tables and percentages. If 50% of the field is playing Wolf Run, and then there are four Wolf Run decks in the top 8, Wolf Run would've only performed at an average level of expectation. On the other hand, when only one player is playing a deck, there isn't necessarily enough data there to make any kind of prediction. After all, in a 400-person tournament, they are only .25% to win anyway, with everything being equal. Even if these odds were slanted a bit one way or the other, it wouldn't take much variance to shift the scale.
What I'm trying to say is that sometimes you find gold in the top 16 or the top 32 (maybe even lower, depending on the size of the tournament), and maybe the deck that wasn't right for that metagame would be just right for yours.
So a week later, Adam Boyd wins with this deck:
As we can tell, the times are changing again. Wolf Run is very good, and the format is predictably warping around it. We see more W/U decks in the top 16, and several of them are running Mirran Crusader and/or Hero of Bladehold and/or Sword of Feast and Famine, all of which are cards perfectly suited to fighting a Wolf Run strategy.
Considering how well Wolf Run decks are doing, is anyone actually surprised by this development?
Right before I played in GP Seattle, Joel Calafell had won GP Barcelona with Cascade Swans. The deck was really, really good, and players were scrambling to find a deck that reliably beat it. Some of us were like, well Faeries has consistently been good, and it beats Swans; maybe we should just play that. But, you see, many other players were thinking the exact same thing. That's why it should've been no surprise to see all the Faeries decks at GP Seattle. I played Faeries, but I only ended up playing against ONE Swans deck the whole GP!
Hopefully, this gives you a helpful perspective on the metagame: you have to try to stay one step ahead, but, especially if you're playing something big like a SCG Open or a GP, you have to be prepared for other people to think a step ahead too. I once read an amazing article on the subject which can be found here, and, like the book Playing to Win, I also consider it required reading.
What I'm trying to get across with these examples and the above link is that while knowing your enemy (expected decks) is important, there are limits to how far we can take making predictions, and we can spend our time better elsewhere. It is enough to know that the format right now is largely composed of Wolf Run decks and decks designed to beat Wolf Run. If I was looking to copy a deck right now, I would probably go right back to Solar Flare. I see many Wolf Run players moving away from the almost mono-green versions (because of Mirran Crusaders) and therefore fewer Dungrove Elders in the future (and more cards that are not good vs. Solar Flare, like Slagstorm). I also think that Solar Flare is awesome against U/W Blade, which I would expect to see even more of.
If it sounds like there's a big window to take advantage of this, there's not. The metagame changes pretty fast from week to week.
Other factors to consider when netdecking are mentioned in my article “Playing the Best Deck” which can be found here and include: your skill level, your play style, and your familiarity with the deck. If you can figure out what the metagame might look like a week from now, though, you're already half way there.
Lastly, it's important when you choose a deck from the Internet that you understand why certain cards were chosen and for what matchups. You should know the deck's angles of attack well and be able to develop alternative plans on the fly. If you don't know why a certain card is included, it's best to play some games and find out. However, it's also important to realize when a different card might be a better fit for the nuances of your particular metagame.
For example, when I played Brian Braun-Duin's U/W Blade deck in my local metagame, I took out a Shrine of Loyal Legions and both Batterskulls for an extra Dismember and two Timely Reinforcements. I also ran a third Snapcaster Mage, over one Oblivion Ring. It was important to me to have a better game against the red decks. I also had two Timely Reinforcements and four Celestial Purges in the side. I wouldn't recommend that everyone do this. In a very large event, like a SCG Open, I would just accept a worse Red Deck Wins percentage and expect not to have to play the matchup often. The good thing about FNM is that you can make more accurate predictions. Many players play the same deck or style of deck from week to week.
Netdecks aren't for everyone, and nobody should play them all the time (how else are you going to develop deckbuilding skills if you don't sometimes innovate?), but sometimes they're just what you need to maximize your own personal best chance of winning.