Sullivan Library: Grinder Times - Standing Out in an Information Rich Time
Well, folks, we are living in unique times. In a dead moment at work, I printed out the Top 8 list from the PTQ this weekend, trying to forage out a bit of tech. I didn't find any in the list I printed, but there was plenty out there to be found otherwise. Yes, we live in unique times.
As I write this, people all over the world are looking at all of the available decklists from this weekend (and previous weekends) that are available at Wizards of the Coast's website. Whether by stick or carrot, Wizards has managed (at least in theory) to get all of the tournament organizers out there to provide their Top 8 lists. As Mike Flores has already said, we haven't seen this kind of depth of information available since the days of the Dojo.
But really, it is much more than that.
We're living in the middle of the longest Grinder of all time.
In order to explain that statement, it is time to wax nostalgic.
Even today, there are Last-Chance qualifiers for most major events. Until recently, for example, I had planned to travel down with the team I used during the recent Team Qualifier season and try to grab one of those slots in Atlanta. But that tournament isn't a Meatgrinder, no really.
The tournaments that we all called the Meatgrinders were the Last Chance slots in U.S. Nationals. Single-elimination, these tournaments would draw players from all over the country that were hungry beyond hungry to qualify. You'd have all of the people who just missed their shot at Regionals, all of the pros and semi-pros who didn't quite get their ratings invite, and anyone else who wanted it really bad. Yes, there are still Last Chance slots at Nationals, but now that they include a limited portion (and nothing wrong with that, per se), it just isn't the same.
At the Meatgrinders, you would see weeks of metagame development happen within a few hours. Most of the most serious players would show up with their decks at the ready and a ton of extra cards to build any deck they might see (or put in new cards to deal with it). For a while, me and my friends in Cabal Rogue could rightly claim to be big fish in the Grinder pond, and it all began with Oath of Druids.
As soon as Exodus came out, we had scoured the lists of cards and quickly began working on new decks. After Rob Hahn mentioned the idea of a Counter-Oath deck (something like, "Counterspells would be good with this card, and you could get out a Verdant Force!"), I began working in earnest on it. By the time we showed up at U.S. Nationals with "Oath of Rogues", we had a very strong deck ready to blow open the event. It wasn't perfect, but in the Midnight Grinder two of our players (eventual two-time Grinder qualifier Jim Hustad and Junior Pro Tour Champion Aaron Souders) faced off against each other in the final 4 to play for the slot.
In the hours that followed, Counter-Oath decks popped up all over the event. Perhaps more important was the response of all of the people watching that first Grinder. Beginning with the second Grinder that day, the impact was small, but by the third Grinder, anti-enchantment cards started to show up main deck and they were in full force by the fourth Grinder. Small improvements to the original Oath deck were made, like the inclusion of a Spike Weaver to join in with the Spirit of the Night, the Archangel, and the Spike Feeder. The deck made such a splash at the Grinder that our qualified players chose to play another deck at U.S. Nationals, expecting the field to be overprepared for it. It was overcautious - too many of the players in Nationals had taken that time to rest and hadn't really checked out what was big from the day before.
The people playing in these subsequent Grinder tournaments used hearsay and eyewitness accounts for their tech. It wasn't perfect, but it was there. I can still remember all of the players walking around with notebooks trying to find something new, some kind of edge that would make them break through the pack. What made that time so unique was that you could see metagame shifts that would often take weeks to occur get packed into a single hour. It might not be perfect information, but it was there in front of your eyes, just waiting to be used by any spectator.
The first massive metagame shifts were initially a direct result of the Dojo. Before the Dojo, most of the shifts that occurred would be tiny ripples from USENET and the odd mailing list or larger team. After the Dojo hit the scene, metagame shifts were limited to the after-effects articles, tournament reports, and the occasional mail from a tournament organizer to Frank Kusumoto. Nearly every major old-school writer would see their words on the Dojo. Every bit of information was self-reported and could contain any amount of truth, propaganda, or editing, whatever it was that the author wanted you to be able to read. And week-to-week, the world would change based on what these authors wanted you to read.
Up until recently, the current Magic world was still like that. There was, I think, a lot less total information out there to glean then there had been in the days of the Dojo, but it was still that author-driven model of metagame change. Information was incomplete, and big wellsprings of tech could come from the big tournaments where you could see the decklists and analysis of the best of the best (at least if the tournament coverage was any good).
Now, however, we are living in the Age of the Grinder.
Every week we've got a friend walking around during the Top 8 of PTQs. A friend named Wottsee. And Wottsee is really good at scouting - we get very nearly every winning decklist. If you want to take get the info, all you have to do is go to Wottsee's site. Sure there are a few stragglers, but by and large, there is a lot of information out there. This is a far cry from the past. And it changes things for everyone.
Information is the constant king for any player that wants to get ahead in the game. I remember sitting in Jim Hustad's living room with a list (probably one I wasn't supposed to have) of every Regionals Top 8 for that year. Having a contact like that gave me a huge edge over most everyone else playtesting for U.S. Nationals or the Meatgrinder. I knew what Mike Long had decided to include in his sideboard. I kept my eyes open for other important names and looked at mana bases and the rare tech card choice. What's more, is I could be confident that any innovation that a player came up with, it might be seen in the next event, but it would be rare.
Take Ped Bun. He works on an Extended Intruder Alarm deck and shares his ideas with Cabal Rogue. In the middle of the next week, BAM! There it is, his decklist. Fast forward to the PTQ in the Twin Cities this weekend, and there it is played by some guy I don't know. In one semi-fortunate moment in the last round, I beat Jim Hustad playing a very tech combo deck (designed by Cabalist and techmeister extraordinaire Ben Dempsey and caballero Mike Hron). Had he beaten me, Dempsey and Hron's tech would be all over the world in a moment. A big part of me is still amazed that this Wottsee guy is out there, spreading decklists throughout the world. Aaron Forsythe wrote a fantastic article years ago in which he argued that Tech should not be free. Well, I guess those days are over now.
So, how do you keep an edge?
Read, read, read
This one is simple. Read. Read it all. I'm not joking. Literally, read every single Top 8 list that our friend Wottsee gives out. Better yet, print it out to read it later. There is going to be a lot of redundancy in there, so you have to be reading critically. What are you looking for?
Trends. The best example of changing trends is examining early Red Deck Wins decklists and late ones. The first thing that you learn is that there really is an early "generic" Red Deck Wins (it was 4x Pup, Fanatic, Lavamancer, Cat, Scroll, Pillage, Firebolt, Jet, Seal, 24x Land). However, the thing you learn is that more and more players include Lava Dart farther into the season. Do not think that "no one" runs Lava Dart or that it is rare. Other decks change over time as well. Some Blue/Green Madness decks, for example, have begun to include Stifle. Don't walk into a card that is trending into a deck. Without any player's decklist in front of you, you can't necessarily know if they have it or not, but you can be aware of what is becoming popular.
New Decks. Take the emergence of Gro-Atog. Look at the new versions of decks that come out and figure out what they have in common. You can bet that Fujita's new Sneak Attack deck is going to be all over the place after his GP finish. Don't find yourself wondering what the heck you're playing against when your opponent shows you a Desperate Ritual off of a Duress. Know the deck so you can know what to sideboard or what to name with Meddling Mage or Cabal Therapy.
Future Scouting. Scout your local threat-players. If you play in a lot of events, you know who these people are. The people that you don't want to sit next to in an event. Check out your semi-local PTQs and see if anyone you know made Top 8. When you play them at the next event, you are going to be pretty likely to know that they are playing something like what they played the last week, maybe with a few changes. It really is worth the time to look at these lists and have a good shot at knowing their deck card for card should you happen to meet them in the next tournament. If you know who these people are pretty well, this can have added benefits. A lot of people play a deck like their friend just played if that friend just made Top 8.
Have a "Pro" Mentor. Get to know the names of people that qualify a lot or build decks. Chances are that when you see their name in a PTQ Top 8, they might have figured out something worthwhile. It could be anything from a slightly different land count to a great sideboard card. With so many decklists to look at, think of these players as the "gold" that you're panning for when you're knee deep in Decklist Creek.
Read more than just decklists. There are a ton of articles out there, so you'll have to read with a critical eye. Reading with a critical eye is a skill you have to cultivate. Even the best players or thinkers in the game sometimes get things wrong. The only way you're going to be able to tell the difference is if you have enough experience out in the world to have an opinion on why someone might be right or wrong. Don't get married to that opinion, though. There is a good chance that perhaps someone has found a method or idea that works in a way you didn't think was possible.
Test, test, test
The idea behind testing is simple, but, of course, there are problems. I would love to test nearly every matchup and nearly every sideboard strategy for all of the decks that I have before every tournament. Between needing available playtest partners or even just needing more hours in the day, this isn't always possible. Here are the edges you are looking for:
Know yourself. If you can play the deck blindfolded, you are all the more likely to know what to tutor for, whether to hold back on creature elimination or aim something at a player's face, or even which creature to lead with. If you don't have enough time to actually get in tons of testing, talk to other people who have tested or read as many articles as you can on the matchups. One of my friends (current Wisconsin State Champ Adam Kugler) hadn't played any Extended, but he knew he wanted to play a competitive deck. On the road trip down to Chicago, I gave him the basic run-down on matchups and tricks he should know. Armed with his own play skill and some decent matchup analysis, he marched into the Top 8 without any sleep and without hardly breaking a sweat. Knowing your own deck can also lead to less time-outs. In old-old-old school Extended, I really loved Stasis. One of the things you had to know to play the deck, though, was what the threats were. You couldn't afford to take the time to puzzle things out in the midst of the match, because even if you got the answer right you'd be likely to run out of time if you went to three games. Watching two former State Champs (Minnesota's Ken Bearl and Wisconsin's notoriously slow, but lovable Rob Castro) face off this weekend, I couldn't help but wonder if Ken could have avoided the time out in that match that cost him Top 8.
Know your enemy. You can't possibly test out every new version of every deck. The more experience you have in general, the more you'll be able to sniff out the versions you'll really want to test. Sometimes all it takes is a couple of games before you learn that a card is important.
Try out that new hip thing. If you have enough time to test out the new tech, definitely do it. Maybe, for example, you are really used to beating some deck and suddenly they have the edge on you. I'm willing to bet, for example, that a certain Shoal might have helped out a certain Sneak Attack deck. Just playing them a little bit can give you a sense of where their weaknesses might lie. Maybe you'll decide to play the deck, maybe the deck won't change anything about what you play in the coming weeks, or maybe you'll need to tweak what you're already working on. Some small changes environmentally can make an absolutely huge difference. In my own testing with Cabal Rogue, for example, one member had done a great deal of work in the previous Extended season with Elves! and his testing had come to one conclusion: RDW was a bye. My own testing quickly had me questioning this result (I was getting smashed by nearly every version of RDW), and I tried to diagnose the problem. In the end, I came to realize that the season he had beaten RDW, the Cato version (sporting Slith Firewalker and more mana disruption) was the version of RDW, but nowadays you could expect an average of 8 more burn spells. This made previously powerful cards like Call of the Herd far less meaningful. You need to notice moments like this if you want your deck to stay up to date as major ripples happen throughout the world from metagame changes.
Study and grow strong
Playtesting can be fun or it can be a drag, but in the end what you are really doing is studying. Pouring through all of the information that is out there is a lot like reading your assigned material for a class. You don't have to do it, but if you want the good grade, you'd better have some good friends to help you get ready for the big test (the PTQ, the GP, the PT, FNM, whatever).
Now, Wottsee might be a great friend and all, but Wottsee doesn't give you a huge amount of opinions on what is going on out there in the great big world. That's what your other, better friends are for. They have opinions. Maybe they read something you didn't read, maybe they tested something you didn't, but whatever the case, it is good to have someone else's perspective, even if you disagree with it in the end.
If you don't have many people around you who are into the tournament scene, you can find them at the tournaments themselves. Tell more than fishing stories ("You should have seen how big the fish was!" is the same as the war stories Magic players share "And then he top-decked a Blistering Firecat!") and talk to people about why a matchup goes on way or another. Two of my favorite collaborators on decks, Brian Kowal and Ben Dempsey, both started out as just a guy I met at events. Brian asked me about Sligh sometime in 1996, and we just ended up working out well together. Ben came to our local store, but it wasn't until a couple of years ago that we started talking Magic together. Throwing ideas at each other has been a great part of our Magic experience, and in recent years it has resulted in some great decks like the R/W deck Maher's piloted to victory in GP Detroit (designed by Kowal), Dempsey's awesome U/W metagame deck (dubbed "Temporary Solution" by, I'm sure, Mike Flores [It was BDM. - Knut, who looks nothing like either of them]), and the Kiki-control deck that Adam Kugler used to win Wisconsin States (designed to some extent by each of the three of us). It isn't just new decks, though, where getting other people's opinions can be useful. It's useful in simply decide on sideboard strategies, tweaking a net-deck, or otherwise strategizing.
Brave New World
These things have always been important. There's nothing new there. What is new is that every single opponent that you face throughout the course of the tournament has access to a ton of tech. Like Forsythe used to (and I assume, doesn't anymore), I do not think that tech should be free. But right now, it mostly is. If you're going to try to win a PTQ, you're going to need every edge you can.
"Studying for the big test" is really what PTQs are about these days. Some people have enough natural talent to just wing it, but with all of the information that is being given out there for free these days, that natural talent may simply be not enough any longer.
Get your edge. I know I'm going to be hunting down a PTQ victory hard, and if I don't make it, I'll still see you at the PTQ trying to "Grind" in.