Magic Isn't The Same: A Lesson In Deckbuilding And Selection
Magic is not the same game as it was when I started playing twelve years ago. Not to sound like a crotchety old man but back in my day we had Smother for removal and nothing else. If they played Ravenous Baloth we probably just died on the spot. Yeah we could have played Terror but then we ran the far more likely risk of losing to Wild Mongrel or Psychatog.
These days there are all sorts of different removal spells up the curve from Tragic Slip to Murder and beyond. I remember thinking in 2004 that these crazy decklists with few four-ofs and multiple twos and threes just didn't make any sense. Smother was the best removal spell so you played four Smother: end of story.
Now I look back on those days and just think we were closed-minded. Compared this:
1 City of Brass
4 Arrogant Wurm
4 Basking Rootwalla
4 Wild Mongrel
4 Careful Study
4 Circular Logic
3 Deep Analysis
3 Quiet Speculation
1 Ray of Revelation
3 Roar of the Wurm
1 Acorn Harvest
1 Krosan Reclamation
2 Ray of Revelation
2 Turbulent Dreams
In 2003 our biggest deckbuilding decision might have been whether or not to play the City of Brass.*
If you were around in the early 2000s the Chapin deck probably makes you want to claw your eyes out. All the different numbers look grotesque and obviously they can't be right! These days we have more removal options than we could ever possibly need.
Even building a creature deck isn't as simple as picking the best ones. Sometimes there are cards like Nearheath Pilgrim that you might want to draw midgame to win a race but it's not a very impressive beater. The cards all do different things and you'd rather draw a mix of various ones than say three Mirran Crusaders. It's not as simple as upgrading Grizzly Bears to Elvish Warrior and calling it a day.
This is even truer in control decks. Say you're like Chapin and you're building the newest Grixis list. These are your options for removal:
Go for the Throat
Pillar of Flame
Black Sun's Zenith
Red Sun's Zenith
Curse of Death's Hold
That's not even a comprehensive list! Step one is identifying the threats you're going to face and the best ways to kill them. Sometimes you want to rely on sweepers and sometimes there are cards like planeswalkers where you might have to branch out and play something different like direct damage spells or Oblivion Ring. Moorland Haunt can also be an issue which is why you need Curse of Death's Hold.
Not everyone is attacking you in the same way. Back in 2003 Psychatog beat U/G Madness by killing literally every threat they played. Today cards like Doom Blade are still good but they don't kill Geist of Saint Traft or match up well against creatures that give value like Snapcaster Mage. Maybe you actually need some maindeck Nihil Spellbombs to prevent them from getting value and getting too far ahead. You might also want ways to deal with Swords otherwise even a lowly Birds of Paradise becomes a huge threat.
If you learned how to build decks back in the late nineties or early 2000s you might have to forget everything you think you know. There are rarely unplayable cards in draft formats. Everything ends up useful in some situation.
This results in a lot of formats having lots of playable cards and plenty of options. Having a finely tuned deck for one week isn't going to be right for the next week. Also if a best deck ever pops up chances are there is something in the format that can beat it.
All of this leads to Magic being better as a whole. They say restriction breeds creativity but that isn't the always the case in Magic. Players want options when building decks. There are players who don't want to play the "best" deck week after week. There are players who would rather win with their own brews and then be able to come up with a new brew the next week. For them it's not necessarily about winning all the time but winning some of the time with something they created.
We live in a fantastic time for Magic where there are tournaments of all different formats every single week. Without R&D designing Magic like that we'd be bored out of our minds with Psychatog mirrors. Granted there are some people like me who would love to play with that deck from now until the end of time but for everyone like me there are a hundred other people who think differently. Even I can appreciate a little variety.
You don't have to play Delver in order to succeed in Standard nor do you have to play Griselbrand in Legacy. The tournament results from the last couple weeks speak for themselves. Don't feel pressured by what deck your favorite pro is championing or your friend who insists that your Kithkin deck is no good. With a well-tuned list of anything that has a coherent strategy you should be able to do well.
That said it's all about figuring out what you enjoy playing what you play well and what has a chance at winning. That's where I come in.
If you're like me you like winning at any cost. Typically this means playing the best deck. I used to think like some people do where I avoided the best deck because I probably wouldn't be good enough to win those skill intensive mirror matches but that's kind of a joke. Players that use that as an excuse either want to have a reason to play something different or they have no idea how good they actually are. If you are as bad as you think you are you aren't going to get any better by avoiding challenging situations.
Sometimes you stumble onto something that becomes the best (think Dark Depths/Thopter Foundry) but most of the time you just jam the best deck and put up good results. Occasionally I get the urge to branch out and try something different or think that I won't have enough technology and seriously inbreed my deck. However I know that if I want to win this is where I want to be.
If this sounds like you you should be playing U/W Delver in Standard (don't get cutesy with those splashes or Blade Splicers) and RUG Delver or Reanimator in Legacy. These are the decks that have proven themselves over and over again and you can't really go wrong with that.
For the most part Timmy is the dude putting big creatures into play. These are the guys that just want to smash their opponents. Troll Ascetic was oft maligned but it's easy to see why the Timmys of the world love him. He represents a clear path to victory whereas you might look at the above Chapin deck and be confused as to how it actually wins.
Some of the most fun I've had was playing Hypergenesis so I totally get the allure. However just playing creatures and smashing face doesn't really appeal to me. I'm not all that interested in just turning guys sideways until they die. I actually like to play an interactive game of Magic.
For Standard Wolf Run Ramp is the obvious choice. Birthing Pod isn't really their thing so they probably want to look at straight G/R Aggro or maybe Naya Aggro. In Legacy there are plenty of options from Sneak and Show to Hypergenesis to Reanimator or even Twelve Post.
This guy loves finding sweet interactions and playing by his own rules. People like this have been frustrated with me in the past. I'm good friends with Cedric Phillips so naturally we'd get to talking about decks. We might agree on where the format is but when we got to talking about how to attack it there would be a visible divide.
Often he would want to play something simple like Kithkin despite basically everyone in the known universe believing that it wasn't good. Sometimes he would pick up a deck like Faeries Living End or Dredge but only after people thought it was bad. He refused to play a popular deck but for no real reason. I used to tell him that he didn't get four points per win instead of three just because he was handicapping himself. After a while I realized that while we agreed on some stuff and could learn things from talking to each other we wouldn't ever end up playing the same deck. It would be better for both of us if I stopped berating him for playing "bad" decks.
Unfortunately there aren't too many weird combo decks in Standard but I think even Matt Nass could enjoy playing Tezzeret Infect or Birthing Pod. Once again Legacy has plenty of options with Belcher High Tide Elves and Storm rounding out the most popular Johnny decks.
With Magic being as diverse as it is now there are playable decks for everyone no matter who you are. All you have to do is pick a reasonable deck practice with it and tune it how you see fit. It's getting to the point where no list is the perfect 60 because you could argue for a different card choice so don't stress too much about that. If your friend who is better than you tells you a card you like is bad ignore them. They probably don't see things through the same lens as you do. If nothing else it will be a learning experience if you do end up being wrong.
Despite all that nothing is set in stone. Sometimes your values change and what you get out of Magic changes. Maybe a certain archetype just isn't viable anymore and you have to move on. Personally it's been tough to justify putting down the control deck and picking up something with Delver of Secrets. It's been even harder to get away from the traps I fell in with Faeries where I tried to "tune" the deck in order to be more controlling even though the deck couldn't function as a control deck. Magic is ever changing and you need to adapt with it.
Nothing is strictly better in the game of Magic. Right now you can play whatever you want and do well.
*Yes I know that some people didn't play Quiet Speculation some had Looter and toward the end most had Unsummon but my point remains the same. Also Static Orb out of the sideboard was insane versus Slide and Wake.
BONUS: My Hall of Fame Ballot
#1: Paulo Vitor Damo da Rosa: I might not like Paulo very much but not voting for him is ridiculous. He's easily on pace to rival Kai and Jon and I don't see him slowing down anytime soon.
#2: Kenji Tsumura: Had he continued playing he'd be up there with Paulo. Regardless I can't wait for Kenji's inevitable return. His dedication to the game was truly remarkable. After a string of Day 2 misses at Limited Pro Tours Kenji told everyone that he was going to focus on improving his Limited game. Soon he was hoisting trophies at American Grand Prix and making Top 8 of Limited Pro Tours.
For those who didn't get a chance to watch him play he was incredible. On top of that he was a bastion of fair play and sportsmanship. Also you haven't lived until you've seen inebriated Kenji belt out Avril Lavigne.
#3: Masashi Oiso: Yet another superstar Japanese player who sadly found other things to do aside from Magic. As others have pointed out he was the first Japanese player with multiple Pro Tour Top 8s the first Japanese player to win an American Grand Prix and had a slew of other accomplishments.
He made Top 8 of Pro Tour Tinker with a highly suboptimal list eschewing Mindslaver and still playing Phyrexian Processor (which wasn't very good when everyone had Mindslavers). Even having bad decks at some events couldn't stop him.
#4: Patrick Chapin: Aside from his four Pro Tour Top 8s and recent Grand Prix success Patrick should be considered for the Hall of Fame based on his community contributions. I haven't met every single Magic player but I guarantee there isn't a single person who loves Magic and wants it to succeed as much as Patrick. That type of selflessness is incredibly refreshing to see in the Magic community. Far too often I come across people whose only interest is in themselves.
His article style is unique in that it doesn't simply state what is best for any given week but instead forces the reader to ask questions and gain a better understanding. They might not even realize it but Chapin has a truly profound impact on the understanding of Magic for anyone who reads his articles.
Vote for him!
#5: William "Baby Huey" Jensen: Huey was around when I first started to grind PTQs and GPs. Sadly the only time I got to play him was when I lost to him playing for Day 2 at my first Grand Prix. I was wholly unprepared but the word I would use to describe him is "fearsome."
Every once in a while there comes along a player who is actually intimidating to play against. Somehow you can just tell they are thinking on a completely different level than you could ever hope to be on. They pay attention to nothing but the game and seem to stare directly into your soul.
These are the types of guys that always seem to have "it" whatever "it" may be. After years of playing against people like Gabe Walls Mark Herberholz and sometimes Bob Maher I came to realize that they weren't good because they always had "it"; they were great because they could sculpt the game state to where "it" would matter.
Huey is on the same level or higher as most if not all of the Hall of Fame inductees thus far. Having players like him at the Pro Tour level is very exciting for the game. There's no reason he shouldn't be in the Hall of Fame.