Building Broken Decks Volume IV: Lessons from Texas
Building Broken Decks Volume IV: Lessons from Texas
Last time, I began Volume III of Building Broken Decks by listing the Universal Resource Locators for the previous two editions of the series because I thought they would be helpful reading. This time, I am going to begin with"No More Lessons from the Past ," which was the fourth installment of my first real column on The Dojo, way back when I was still in law school, and before I was the editor and all of that.
Done reading? Good. Stay done. Forget it.
I remember when I first wrote that article, I was all excited about my newly hardened edge, my official Dojo column, my triumphant return to the Pro Tour after almost two years away (PTLA 1999), and so forth. At that PT, I saw Frank Kusumoto, and the first thing he said wasn't"Hi Mike," but"Why do you think there are no more lessons from the past?"
Frank, ever the historian (more even than Rob and I were), was a little concerned with the stance I had taken, especially given my own respect for the deck histories. I argued that a changing metagame, and increasingly powerful cards (remember, players were tossing around Hymns to Tourach and Time Spirals), were largely obviating whatever we could learn from Weissman, Hahn, and the rest of the old school masters... after all, what could old The Deck analysis teach us about beating a much more proactive permission deck like High Tide? The offensive overload of Handleman School was barely a shadow/prequel of post-Hacker aggressive redundancy theory. After all this time, I think the most productive thing about that article was not the conclusion to which I came,"If you are going to learn something from a champion AustiKnight, you had better learn it from Lan D. Ho -- he won in Texas last week. Teammate Bill Macey took home a slot in Week 1, and that is much too far away," but the fact that I mentioned those wonderful colleagues, then-AustiKnights Lan and Macey.
If you don't know who Lan and Macey are, let me briefly introduce them.
"Handsome Boy Model" Lan D. Ho is perhaps Magic's most underrated deck theorist. When PT champions told him they thought Dwarven Miner was"too slow," Lan nevertheless rode those Miners to a Top 8 showing at Grand Prix Kansas City 1999, losing only to the Extended format's most celebrated champion, Bob Maher, playing (you guessed it) Maher Oath. Lan played a Tinker-Prison deck called The Iron Giant (more on that later) to a near-Top 8 finish at PT Chicago last year, and co-designed the dominant U/R Tinker/Wildfire deck from PT NY 1999. I have been lucky enough to work with Lan over the past few months, and can attest to his reliability as both a design partner and friend.
"Dave Price's Evil Twin" Bill Macey is probably the most successful US Open player in constructed Magic history. Winning the only non-Necropotence US Nationals berth in 1996, Macey succeeded with a non-intuitive White Weenie deck. In 1998, he contributed to the dominant and innovative Oath of Rogues design by Rob Hahn, Adrian Sullivan, and Cabal Rogue (though Bill personally ran an alternate Oath of Druids deck). In 1999, he won yet another US Nationals berth, with yet another White Weenie deck, this time using the VGC's"Moa-Boa." Bill and I have served as the other's voice of reason repeatedly over the years... at States 1998, he convinced me to run b/U DiskGo Gnomes ; for the US Open in 1999, I convinced him to beat down with the aforementioned Hunting Moa deck, instead of removing creatures and controlling the board (and thank God that I did). Bill and I have a mutual love of attacking with black creatures.
As you may have guessed from the"Austin" in their team name, and by the title of this installment of Building Broken Decks, Lan and Macey are from Texas.
Most of what we have discussed thus far in this series has involved testing for existing formats, templating preexisting designs, and selecting deck archetypes based on metagame information. What these Austin powers can teach us, though, is what to play when you aren't sure what might be dealt out across the table. These techniques are especially useful today, as we all prepare for the departure of the mighty Urza's Block, and the constructed introduction of the mediocre creatures and efficient spells of Invasion.
In July of 1996, the Magic world was essentially populated by three deck archetypes, G/W Armageddon, which generally lost to U/W control, which was (like the field itself) wholly dominated by mono-black or black/splash Necropotence decks. As we mentioned, Macey took the following deck to the semifinals of the US Open:
Macey White Weenie - 1996
R Zuran Orb
R Land Tax
4 Order of the White Shield
3 Repentant Blacksmith
4 Savannah Lions
4 Swords to Plowshares
4 White Knight
4 Adarkar Wastes
3 Kjeldoran Outpost
2 Strip Mine
Though the ability to predict both black creatures and spot removal (trumped by Protection from Black knights and Crusade), and slow-but-mana hungry U/W opponents (fearful of Savannah Lions and Armageddon), show excellent metagame preparation and templating, Macey's 1996 deck is remembered for the innovation of Kjeldoran Outpost. Outpost absolutely worked the US Open field, annihilating unprepared control players, backing up Bill's dead forces against creature elimination, and (especially powered by Crusade) raced life-dependent Necropotence card advantage. The unusual use of Repentant Blacksmith (called"the best part of the deck" by Lan D. Ho) also requires a note.
"Even back then, I was a 'Net monkey. I had heard about this 'Geeba' deck, and I didn't want to get hit by Ball Lightning. Back then the trample rules were different, so Repentant Blacksmith was a beating against red." (We will talk more about this sort of preparation in Lan's section, below).
The same set of skills was embodied by his adoption of Oath of Druids. Though Bill was not the primary designer of the US Open-dominant Oath of Rogues, I think his attitude towards the theme card best crystallized its importance.
Bill seems to do best when a new set becomes legal for Type II. The reason is because his deck construction strategy involves identifying the most powerful new cards (generally card advantage-generating cards like the aforementioned Outpost and Oath of Druids) of the new set, and building decks where an unsuspecting opponent will be unable to answer them, or more specifically, how his deck utilizes them. To quote a pessimistic Macey,"I know if I draw 10 cards and my opponent draws 10 cards, I just know that his cards will be better... so when I don't know what the other guy is going to play, mize well play a deck with card advantage!"
For Reference: The Oath of Rogues - 1998
1 Spirit of the Night
2 Force Spike
3 Mana Leak
2 Creeping Mold
2 Gaea's Blessing
4 Oath of Druids
4 Spike Feeder
1 Spike Hatcher
2 Sylvan Library
2 Undiscovered Paradise
1 Gemstone Mine
1 Reflecting Pool
Though Kjeldoran Outpost can be used in a variety of ways (it has found most success in U/W control decks), Bill played it in an aggressive deck with Crusade, where it could do a lot of damage. Where the rest of Cabal Rogue ran a U/G control Oath deck, Bill's was a G/R attack deck that was designed to bolt blockers, swing, and constantly gain life and draw cards by playing out Bottle Gnomes and Spike Feeders with Oath in play. The second half of Bill's new set theory relies on the fact that, while he is trying to utilize new cards in a proactive manner, his average opponent's deck may be untuned. Aggressive decks are best for exploiting the imperfect mana bases and imprecise card selections of new decks... and anyway, Bill likes the attack phase.
I have to confess to having fallen prey to Macey theory myself at the onset of a new format. At New York States 1999, playing an aggressive, creature-heavy, and less tuned, predecessor to my Regionals/Nationals Napster deck, I got my tail handed to my by Garrett"Scraps" Schaper, running a black deck with Thrashing Wumpus. Thrashing Wumpus was one of those card advantage cards that fit perfectly into his tempo-generating Negator Black deck... inexperienced, I got tooled by Scraps's elegant Wumpus/Negator tricks, and having no commensurate card advantage engine, instead saw my beloved Skittering Skirges jump into the graveyard.
Lan, on the other hand, prides himself on taking advantage of the size of a format's card pool. He tries to use the most powerful cards available, in the decks where they fit best. Lan's goal, obvious as it may seem, is to play"the best version of the best deck."
Nowhere can this be better seen than Lan's selection of The Iron Giant for last year's PT Chicago.
The Iron Giant - 1999
1 Crumbling Sanctuary
3 Cursed Scroll
4 Grim Monolith
1 Karn, Silver Golem
4 Mana Vault
2 Mishra's Helix
2 Phyrexian Colossus
1 Phyrexian Processor
3 Thran Dynamo
4 Voltaic Key
1 Stroke of Genius
We can argue all day about whether The Iron Giant was the best deck of Chicago -- or even the best-tuned Tinker variant there -- but it may have had the best win percentage of the field, with 100% of its players in the Top 32.
"Do you know that Team-X had Elvish Lyrist in their Stompy deck? It is 1/1 for 1, but they could play 2- or 3-power creatures for 1. They played it because it isn't bad against anything, and sometimes it can be good... but that is old-school thinking. Instead of playing cards that aren't just not bad against anything, the Schneider-Ho school of thinking is to play the most powerful cards in the best decks. Ha ha!"
Though identifying the best cards in any format and running them in the decks where they are most appropriate may seem obvious, Lan's real contribution to new format preparation is how he approaches the metagame.
"You begin with the intuitive decks that people will play, Sligh, Recur, Hatred, some sort of combo. You make sure you can beat those decks. Then you identify the less intuitive decks that people will play... decks like free-spell Necro and Tinker. Especially if you play one of the less obvious decks, you have to expect that other good deckbuilders are going to have the same ideas that you do... if you are going to advance you have to prepare for decks that are like yours. Then there are the decks that aren't intuitive at all, like Necro-Pebbles. Even if you can predict them, you don't prepare for those heavily... very few people play them."
While Lan prepared heavily for obvious beatdown decks, with main-deck Cursed Scrolls, Masticores, and a Crumbling Sanctuary, and ran a backup Prison plan with Wasteland, Mishra's Helix, and Mercadian Masques's Dust Bowl and Rishadan Port (unusual for Chicago), he was nonetheless prepared for other Tinker decks, running both the versatile Annul and the hyper-focused Hurkyl's Recall in his sideboard.
So this brings us to the dawn of Invasion for PT Chicago, November's State Championships, and other Type II tournaments. Though we have Masques Block Constructed to proceed from in terms of preexisting archetypes, Bill Macey reminds us that this is a new constructed format. There are some powerful new cards in the new set, and correctly identifying the decks that opponents might not prepare for properly might be the route to victory. Though this will be a new format, we must nonetheless remember that Masques Block Constructed will still serve as a basis for many players... Lan would want us to crush the obvious decks, playing the most powerful (not necessarily the most intuitive) cards from Sixth Edition to Invasion. Though we will have to test against Rebels, B/G Priest, and Rising Waters, we should still remember that every good idea we have will be copied somewhere, and we should prepare for the"buried" good decks as well.
Lan's is a tough lesson to remember, and some of the best deck designers in the game run into this wall when preparing for every tournament. Try not to do the same.
Up Next: More Mail,"More Than Just Me"