From The Lab - Making That Deck Choice
In which our hero diabolical villain is given a regular column, and opens with some sage advice on how to pick decks for whatever format you're playing. It's all part of a master plan that will eventually lead to domination of the entire Earth.
The fools! The poor, pitiable, weak-minded fools! They've given me a weekly column. Ha ha! Now I have a foothold there will be no stopping me. Five writers on Friday? Ha! Soon it will just be me, glorious me! And from there I will take Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday. Nothing will stop me. I control the horizontal, I control the vertical, and I will beam my commands into your weak little minds. You will all be playing Squire and worshipping my godlike awesomeness!
But I won't stop there, oh no. The Mothership is in my sights. I will take control of Magicthegathering.com and from there conquer Wizards R&D itself. The whole of Magic will be mine! Mine, I tell you!
And what can we expect from this glorious new world order...?
I will unleash chaos on this sodden little mudball, absolute chaos. It will be a world where Wrath of God is Black, Ball Lightning is Green, Morphling is Red, and White is... bah, Who cares about white?
And in this chaotic New World Order, I will be crowned supreme...
Yes, what is it? I thought I told you never to interrupt me while I'm grandstanding!
And in this chaotic New World...
B-b-but what about...
Don't make me fetch the bucket of soapy frogs...
But what about D-d-d-damn...
What are you blathering about? Stop stuttering and spit it out. man! Before I tear out your tongue and wear it as a bow-tie!
But what about Damnation?
(Brief pause while Prof reads the recent spoilers.)
I've got a brand new column. Provisionally I think my brief is to give tips on Pro play (I think half of the Hall of Fame ballot just collectively grimaced), throw in a generous dollop of humor, and hopefully also come up with some cool and zany decks that have an outside chance of taking on the top tier. I'll probably still do the odd tournament report, and even talk about Limited from time to time (although you may want to take those articles with a pinch of salt. I am British after all, and therefore naturally draft-challenged).
This is technically “Flores Friday” (but don't worry, I'm working on that. Soon, my pretty... soon... heh heh). He'll be the guy you go to if you want to win your next PTQ. I'm the guy you'll go to if you want to have fun and confuse the hell out the net-decking robots.
The title is “From the Lab” as I am, of course, the Mad Professor. (Actually I'm not. I'm probably eccentric at best, and I'm nowhere near a Professor. However, the “slightly-eccentric possibly-a-doctor-in-a-year's-time” doesn't quite have the same ring to it.) We could have also gone with the obvious “Off the Top,” but I reckon I've probably milked that Helix to the point everybody else (along with Olivier Ruel) will be sending death squads after me.
Okay, so what do we have from the lab this week?
Well... erm... you see, there was a slight accident involving several Naked Molerats, some Homing Pigeon DNA, and six small cases of Nitro Glycerine. The lab had to move. But not to worry, the new one is set up now. I have flashing lights, whirly gears, and lots of flasks of weird bubbling liquid. Some juicy deck tech (and hopefully a perfectly formed clone of Salma Hayek) will emerge any time soon, and I'll be able to continue my quest for complete and utter world domination.
So what can we do until then?
Ah, I know. It's Planar Chaos preview week on the Mothership. Why don't I preview a card from the brand new set!
Okay, so I don't actually have an “official” preview card. That would mean I wouldn't be able to play in the prerelease without complicated shenanigans involving plastic surgery and / or brain transplants. But there are plenty of spoilers out there. I'll just take a look and... here, this looks like a good enough candidate.
Today I'm going to preview [CENSORED].
[CENSORED] is so kickass because it totally [CENSORED] [CENSORED] [CENSORED] [CENSORED] and [CENSORED] [CENSORED].
Hmm, that's weird.
Let's try again.
What about Chronozoa?
Ah, that works fine.
Now what about [CENSORED], [CENSORED] and [CENSORED] [CENSORED].
How do they do that?
Oh well, guess we'll have to wait until next week after I've played a prerelease or three.
So we have no new deck, no shiny new preview card, not even a recent tourney report. That's not the best start. I don't suppose I can interest you in a live Beeble dissection...?
Oh well, I guess I'll have to fall back on that old standby of “recent issues and Pro play tips.”
The truth is I had to move just before the Christmas break, and have been away from such basic Magic comforts like a local FNM or even an Internet connection fast enough to play MTGO. Thankfully, I'm now back in the Manchester area and can actually start playing again. Unfortunately, my only recent play experiences have been with Dragonstorm, and I'm guessing most people are heartily sick of that deck by now. So rather than talk about the deck itself, I'm going to talk about the process of actually choosing which deck to play (and hopefully not saying exactly the same things as Tiago yesterday).
This actually ties in quite nicely with an interesting discussion that came about in the forums after The Ferrett's last article.
The comment that sparked it off was this one from daghain:
I once asked Tim Aten if he would ever keep a seven-card hand with only one color in it. He responded, "Well, if you have three swamps, Blademaster, Kabuto Moth, Befoul and something, and you're playing against Kai...
Variance is the friend of the underdog and the enemy of the favorite. Mediocre players playing against good players will want to keep high-variance hands like the above, because they will need to get lucky to win in any case. Admittedly, this is less true in Constructed than Limited because you have a better chance of mulliganing into a very powerful hand.
On the other hand, mediocre players playing against bad players should throw back high-variance hands but keep low-powered, low-variance hands (like the five-lander in Limited) and count on their opponents to give up time and opportunities for card advantage through their bad play and poor deck construction.
Here they are talking about mulliganing decisions in Limited, but the same considerations can also apply to deck choice in Constructed. What we're looking at are the classic luck and variance issues that apply to a card game like Magic.
I don't know if Tim really made this comment, and apologies if this is all completely apocryphal, but what it boils down to is taking a very powerful (the best commons in the format) but risky (no Plains to play them) hand against a player you believe to be better than yourself (understandable when you're referring to Kai). If this hand draws a Plains it's got a powerful set of tools and is probably going to beat any ordinary hand your opponent might have. But if you don't draw a Plains, the game probably won't last very long.
One argument is that against a better player you take the risk, as if you both have fairly even hands he has the advantage. Conversely, against a worse player you throw the hand back as you're giving them a way to beat you if you don't draw the Plains.
The other argument is that you always do the right thing. The hand is too risky - you need to hit a Plains within the first couple of draw steps, and so you throw it back for something safer.
I don't think there are any set-in-stone rules for this kind of thing. I've certainly seen plenty of Top 8 games where good players have suddenly changed their play style “because it's Kai” and gone on to lose as a result. But I also think there are times when you need to take a risk, and you need to be able to recognise when those times occur.
By the way, never base any decision on the assumption that the world owes you a break, and that the Plains will definitely be there because you got screwed the last round. I've already covered that here. The world hates you and will bite you on the ass at the first opportunity.
So what has this got to do with Constructed deck choices, you're probably thinking. Surely you just pick the best deck for your style and leave it at that?
Ah, but then we have this tricky concept of “best deck.” R&D are fairly adept nowadays at creating reasonably interesting Constructed environments. It's very rare to come across a format where one deck is completely head-and-shoulders above the rest of the field to the extent that it is pointless to play anything else. Necro-Trix at its height is probably an exception to this. When you have a deck like that, which is so grotesquely overpowered compared to the rest of the field, then you really have to play it.
Generally, there are usually so many options in any given format that trying to find that holy grail of the “best deck” that beats everything else in the field is an impossible task. Really you want something that gives you the tools to beat most of the decks you might encounter and then hope you only encounter those decks.
I'm also a firm believer of playing decks that suit your style of playing. Some people prefer control, some like beatdown, and some are happiest when running through a complicated combo. If you prefer beatdown, then you are likely to be better off taking a beatdown deck you're familiar with rather than a control deck with slightly better percentages against the expected field. The important thing to consider is not how well a deck will perform against a field, but how well you will perform with that deck against the field. This is a really important distinction as decks don't play themselves (in most cases anyway).
Another interesting term to consider is “expected field.” I've seen plenty of criticisms levelled at strategy articles that go along the lines of “have you even looked at the online metagame?” The inference here is that the online metagame is the metagame, or at least representative of a single over-arching metagame.
Sorry, but the real world isn't that simple. Magic Online has a metagame, but this is not necessarily the same metagame you might see at a Pro Tour and is probably different again to the metagame you might see at your local FNM. Sometimes you might have to change your choices depending on the tournament you're playing in.
So you're telling me that not only am I unlikely to find a “best deck,” but that it might even be different depending on where I'm playing?
Yep, that's it. Isn't Magic such fun?
Actually, one of the things I find really funny is when wannabe good players take their “good” decks to their local tournament, and then blow a gasket after losing to something they didn't expect because it shouldn't be in the field for whatever reason.
“You know that deck can't ever beat X or Y...?” (where X and Y are 70-odd per cent of the field.)
Ever felt that? You know, when you tune your deck to kick the crap out of TriscuitTron and Dragonstorm, and then get flattened by someone's homebrew Dredge deck, and then roll over to a random Green deck? Why are you losing to these idiots? Don't they have any idea of what decks to expect?
In this case, the only idiot is actually you. You got the expected field wrong, and blaming everybody else for being a scrub isn't going to change this fact. You got the expected field wrong.
I first noticed this a few years back. Back then I used to build my own decks, but on one occasion I got stuck without any ideas and indulged in a spot of dirty net-decking. It was a Red deck with Orcish Artillery that had just won the World Championships, if my memory serves me correctly (we're talking a long time back!). I got utterly battered, and posted a bad record in a tournament I normally did well in. The deck was set up to handle a different field, and couldn't cope with the decks that were thrown against it (and I probably wasn't playing it properly because it wasn't my deck).
The opposite example is one I think I've used before. Before Pro Tour: Chicago 2000, Steve Newbury was tearing up the Birmingham scene with a Black/Red land destruction deck, so it made sense to take the deck to the Pro Tour. There was a critical flaw in this plan. At his local tournaments, people thought twenty land was fine for their Fires decks, with Birds and Elves. A common mistake for less experienced players is to not include enough land. So, of course, Newbury ate them alive. Then he went to the Pro Tour and found people were running 26 land and Birds and Elves in their Fires decks.
If there is an obvious “good” deck for a format, then the best plan for your local tournament is probably to play it. In this kind of field power is good as there might be a wide range of potential decks you might run across.
At a higher level of tournament it gets tricky. That obvious “good” deck no longer seems quite so inviting. At this point you have to assume everyone else also has the deck, and probably a plan to beat it. Then it becomes an interesting guessing game. Do you go with the “good” deck and risk the hate, or do you go with the hate and hope you'll take down enough people running the “good” deck?
But that's enough vagueness - time for some current examples (and a fairly shoddy streak in my local tournaments, I'm sad to say).
Let's fast forward to Dragonstorm as a more recent example. By now you should all be familiar with the deck, as Makihito Mihara used it to win the World Championships a little over a month ago. I also ran a similar deck, and managed a 4-2 record in the Standard portion.
For that tournament I think my choice was largely correct. Before the tournament, Dragonstorm had presented itself as the obvious combo deck and I was a little concerned it might be too obvious a “target.” It can also be a little flaky sometimes, but this is where that random discussion on luck and variance becomes relevant. Dragonstorm is extremely powerful (it can win on turn 1 - how much more power do you want for a Standard deck?), but also a little risky in that some of its draws can be downright atrocious. In this case I didn't have any secret tech of my own, and was likely an underdog going into the field. I took the risk and it paid off, as I came out of day one with a reasonable 4-2 record. Given the choice, I'd play the deck again.
I then played the same deck at a local FNM, and managed a rather poor 2-2 record. This is where I should have been thinking about that luck and variance. This is part of the same argument when Craig Stevenson argued why we shouldn't have spent so long testing Boros against Dragonstorm. Dragonstorm is largely non-interactive. It either does its thing and fries its opponent to a crisp on turn 4 with quad Bogardan Hellkite, or it falls in a heap and does a very good impression of a goldfish.
Dragonstorm satisfies the raw power criteria, but don't be fooled. This is no Trix. The deck can throw a wobbly, and when it does there aren't really any options to retrieve it. This makes it a very bad deck to take to your local FNM because:
a) It's not fun. We've all seen the trick by now, and the game largely boils down to your opponent asking on turn 4: “Have you got it?”
b) It gives your opponent a good chance of beating you regardless of what they're playing, and or even how badly they're playing it.
Notice how point b) can be turned on its head.
At Worlds, Dragonstorm is a good choice because it gives me a chance of beating everyone I play. (And I didn't have another deck I liked at the time.)
At my local tournament, Dragonstorm is bad because it gives everyone a chance of beating me.
Then we have the online metagame, which is just downright weird. After Worlds, I played Dragonstorm in a few eight-mans. Just about half of the decks I played against were Dragonstorm, and the other half was either Boros or TriscuitTron. In that field you could have played a deck that beat those three decks and had a 100% loss record against the rest of the field, and still picked up a ton of tickets.
We've got essentially the same format, but potentially different metagames. Obviously there are some features in common, but there are also important differences and you need to be aware of these differences to be fully successful at Magic.
In the online metagame, going with a deck that does little else but straight-up destroy the dominant decks from the last Pro Tour is a valid strategy.
In some local environments, you might not actually run across enough of those decks. In this case you probably want to be running one of those dominant decks yourself. Obviously this depends on your local environment. If your environment is full of imitators rather than creators, then the hate strategy will reap more rewards.
And then we have the bigger tournaments like the Pro Tour itself. These are often the real test, as often there is no real information going into the tournament. Some players are very good at adapting to changes in the local metagame and consistently picking the correct deck, but then find themselves out of their depth as there is nothing to go on, or the metagame suddenly turns out to be completely different.
While I'd like to tell you how to pick a deck for the PT, the truth is I don't really know myself, and none of the rules are exact in any case. Osyp Lebedowicz won PT: Venice 2003 by running the obvious power deck for that format, Astral Slide. But a few years earlier Sigurd Eskeland won PT: New York 2000 by hating out the dominant archetype, Rebels, with a Rising Waters deck. There are no hard and fast rules for this.
A lot of people are interested in the Extended format at the moment, as it is the current PTQ format. Unfortunately I'm not the best person to comment on this. As I'm already qualified for Yokohama I can't play the PTQs, and unfortunately the prices of several of the key cards mean I can't easily play it casually on MTGO either.
Originally I would have recommended Flow Deck Wins, but I've tested with it a little after Worlds and my biggest concern is that while there isn't really any matchup you fear, you don't really crush anything either. A friend of mine ran it at a PTQ to a 4-3 record, and I suspect it might be that sort of deck, and Extended might possibly be that kind of format.
I might be more tempted to run something with a little more power, but possibly more vulnerable. Decks like Affinity, Friggorid, or TEPS can be taken out with a few well-placed cards, but they will slaughter any deck very quickly if it doesn't find the silver bullets. These are your gambling decks, high risk and high power. At the other extreme we have the solid fighters like Gift's Rock, Nassif's Angel deck, and Flow Deck Wins. If you know any of these decks inside out, then that's what you should run.
I wouldn't recommend Flow Deck Wins, unless you're Stuart Wright or have that level of familiarity with the deck. In which case you'll be able to extract those extra percentage points in the tight matchups by knowing the correct plays and correct sideboard decisions.
The key thing again is information and what you expect. And this is local information. It doesn't really matter what Frank Karsten or blisterguy tells you about what's happening online (okay that's a bit harsh, especially as both do such a fantastic job, but you'll kind of see what I'm getting at in a few lines). Filling your deck full of Stifles because TEPS is on a tear online isn't going to help you if all the good players in your state or county show up with Boros. An ear to the web is good, as it will give you a good indication of the overall format, but an ear to the ground is even more important. Who are the good players at your PTQs? What decks do they like to play? These are the people you'll need to beat to perform well at this particular level of tournament, and this is the information you really need to know.
But I'll leave Extended to the people who are actually playing the format competitively, and are on the front lines so to speak. I'm fairly certain Mike will have a lot more interesting stuff to say about it in his article. (But remember, your area may not necessarily be the same as New York).
Basically, deck choice is a little more complex than just taking the “best” control or “best” beatdown deck. The metagame is also not uniform across the whole format. What might seem the correct choice in one tournament can just as easily be the wrong choice in a different tournament.
By way of an aside, I switched from Dragonstorm to Pact-Husk (my pet deck, see here) at my last FNM. My record — 2-3. Sometimes a deck just isn't competitive, no matter where you play it.
See you next week for an opening look at the madness that is Planar Chaos. If you'll excuse me, it's time to get back to my genetically mutated super-rats. Busy busy busy... worlds to enslave, and all that.