There are some tournaments where one walks in ready to own the room. You've gone over every deck every matchup and every sideboard card. The only key activity the night before is figuring out what strategies are going to be somewhat more popular than expected so you can decide on a few close card choices and when that's done you walk in ready to own the world. You broke it and you know it and you're here to collect your prize.
This was not one of those tournaments. This is not one of those stories.
So I invite everyone to gather round for a different type of Magic tale. An old veteran will struggle to use what time he has to fight through a world where time has passed him by. He will seek through his wits and experience to cut through the seemingly balanced Gordian knot of Standard and at the eleventh hour find a strategy that seems capable of being something special and dominating the room. He will throw off the shackles of mediocrity and reach for the stars knowing that it's better to try to win and probably lose than to never give himself a chance. A wide-eyed grin combined with a stoic bravery will lead him into battle. And there with everything on the line he will get his clock cleaned and be stranded in Paris with nothing to do except have a romantic weekend with his true love secure in the notion that for one brief shining moment he once again lived.
Hawkward. So much time and so little to do!
Due to the schedule aside from relatively inefficient background work I'd have to squeeze all my preparations into a period of two weeks. Learning the previous versions of a format gives you an immense head start if done right but doing it right can't be justified unless you actually had an opportunity to compete in that old format. My schedule hadn't allowed that. Meanwhile I made the mistake that has doomed so many Magic players in so many tournaments. That's right; I went and got myself a life and when the time came to choose I chose that life.
Gaudenis saw the error of my ways immediately. He knows how to keep his focus. He gave his girlfriend Ausra a ring in Paris but he always made sure she didn't get in the way of gaming. By the night of the 14th he was back in New York hanging out with Sam Black playing board games. You might think that was a punt but he would say it is the sign of a true master. A week later he was off winning a Grand Prix.
I on the other hand was not about to miss a meeting of the New York Rationalist group nor was I going to miss the opportunity to spend several days leading up to the Pro Tour with my dear friend Divia before she moved to San Francisco. That left us only a handful of days to work on Magic at all and what little we had would have to be divided between the two new formats. For the draft rounds I'd be starting from a true zero having not played a single game with any of the cards currently being used.
It would've been hard to be less prepared. I've seen Bob Maher do it (and win!) but it's hard.
The question was how to best use what time we had to maximize our utility from the tournament. That meant dividing my time between draft theory practical draft experience working on learning existing Standard predicting what others would do and attempting to innovate in various different ways. Several team members already knew a lot about the Standard format as it existed previously so we were not starting from nothing.
In order to best use what time was available it was necessary to figure out how much marginal utility could be gained from spending more time on each task. In Limited each draft poses unique challenges in addition to falling into more common patterns. That means that a lot of the time spent with Limited gaining practical experience is necessarily spent gaining experience on special cases rather than more general cases that are likely to occur in the tournament. At first each match is massively valuable because you get to see how the individual cards play and the general types of games that can play out as well as what cards are in short supply during the draft and which ones can be picked up at low cost which in turn allows you to send and receive signals from the other players.
After that however there is a rapid decline in marginal value. Once you grasp the basics of what is going on a lot of the basic interactions repeat themselves and much of what is not repeating is quite rare. Each draft will usually give you valuable additional information but the practical marginal value of each draft becomes quite low. The way to master things is to stick at it because these benefits are cumulative as you get opportunities to try more advanced and refined versions of various strategies and open up more and more options but in the short term one more draft is unlikely to do that much to help you win the next one because the questions from the previous draft are unlikely to come up in the next one.
Draft theory can have a far more dramatic effect because it allows players to discuss in a short amount of time the questions where they can gain the most by improving their answers. In a few minutes a player can teach you the keys to pursuing an entire new strategy or turn you on to cards you would have otherwise ignored. Rather than learn lessons as they come up and do your own research you can make much better time learning lessons from others and even the best players gain a lot by periodically comparing notes or reading articles. The value of this levels off quickly if you don't have sufficient experience of your own to complement it but I wasn't about to get deep enough for this to be an issue. In general most players spend far too much time drafting instead of talking theory if their goal is to improve as rapidly as possible.
Most people pursue both of these paths with an eye towards mastery. In this case however it was far more important to give myself a chance in two particular drafts in Paris than it was to get general mastery. To that end I've discovered that the most efficient path is to find one draft strategy and make yourself as adept at it as possible. You act as if you're following The Rule for some value of The Rule. As we all know The Rule is as follows:
Draft (some color combination or draft strategy you consider best) unless everyone else knows The Rule.
Implementing The Rule when there is no clearly dominant strategy is decidedly suboptimal because the random variations of the cards and decisions of other players will often mean that another strategy is called for. I experimented back in 2002 with signaling my intention to pursue one particular strategy before the draft began and lost due to poor execution and there have been a number of times when I felt the current sets pointed clearly to a correct approach.
The advantage is twofold. One is that you can improve far faster from both experience and theory if you always stick to the plan. You always gain relevant experience including how to make the best of a situation when the cards available tell you that you're clearly not “supposed” to be doing what you're doing. Two is that you never waste anything you pick in a draft because you always know what you want and this is often strong compensation for fighting a strong headwind especially if you're adept at making use of the cards no one else wants.
The disadvantage of course is that if something unexpected happens you won't be equipped to deal with it but when preparation time is limited this sacrifice is often worth it. I passed a first-pick Phyrexian Vatmother in my draft confident that this was likely to be beyond wrong to do in general; however I wanted to use what knowledge I had and considered that more important than taking what seemed like by far the best card.
What I decided after trying some alternate strategies was to take the advice of Alexander West. Alexander had been forcing a strategy that centered around large green creatures supplemented with removal and mana acceleration and paid special attention to fliers and other traditional problems for such decks. This fit the bill perfectly as it was a deck type that I had experience with that carried over from past years and fit my style well. It also relied heavily on cards that no one else wanted which is key when selecting a draft strategy to pursue blindly because you're far less dependent on what cards happen to be available.
I also kept in mind that we would play Standard for thirteen of the nineteen rounds of the tournament: five out of eight on Thursday five out of eight on Friday if we made Day Two and then all three on Sunday. People don't take Sunday into account as much as they should because they're so unlikely to still be in the tournament but the biggest prizes are determined on Sunday! The rewards I want are those for winning it all and that's what I want to maximize my chance of doing. Combining this with the difficulty in making big gains beyond basic implementation of one basic strategy I decided to do enough drafts to see the common cards in action and try Alex's strategy to confirm I was comfortable with it learn the basics from him and devote the bulk of my time to Standard.
Standard also offers what might be called preparation levels. Don't think of this list as dogma but rather as a rough sketch I'd like to flesh out one day in greater detail.
If one had very little time and did not know anything at all the best choice by far would've been to choose a strategy at random and learn how to implement it reasonably without questioning the card choices rather than try to innovate or even learn enough to make a better choice of strategy. If time is short enough it makes sense to pursue this initially to some extent the next level up is to try out several choices before learning one of them especially once a backup plan is secured.
The third level would be to take your choice and make it your own understanding the deck and its expected opponents well enough to make unique choices. I was confident I had enough time to get this far.
The fourth level and up involves true innovation. There are diminishing returns to spending time at each level but higher levels require more upfront investment in the format. Thus it's important to choose the right level for the amount of work you're prepared to do and the skill level you can bring. It's better to be a master where you are than move up higher and be lost. My strategy these days is essentially to try and move up as many levels as time allows.
We started off by establishing Valakut as a level-one style backup deck. There's no denying Valakut is highly powerful; it has been a popular strategy for a long time with good reason and we were confident it would do reasonably well especially once we realized the deck was going to be improved greatly by the addition of Green Sun's Zenith.
Valakut's biggest weaknesses were always its reliance on Primeval Titan without any way to make sure it would draw one and now there was a reliable second way to find one instead of looking only at the top seven with Summoning Trap.
The second problem was that the need to play so many mana cards and such expensive spells made it easy to draw too much of one and not enough of the other and Zenith allows Valakut to have a card that functions as both mana when you need mana and a threat when you need a threat.
Lightning Bolt is a natural card in the deck but against what is currently out there it's never a card that you want. The original concept was that it was a removal spell to buy time if you were under attack while also being able to take out Jace the Mind Sculptor if you weren't being attacked but it no longer buys much time against an attack and many Jace players will choose to protect Jace whether or not you have the Lightning Bolt.
It was clear we had a solid version of a solid deck. Knowledge gained and insurance purchased!
Playing against another Valakut player had effectively been solved and came down to who wanted it more with no way we could think of to improve our odds beyond deciding to sacrifice elsewhere. Even that seemed unlikely to give much of an edge.
The problem with running Valakut was that while it couldn't possibly put us in that bad of a situation it also couldn't possibly put us into that good of one either and the whole point of playing in a large tournament is to get yourself into a very good situation.
For many Valakut players they've been playing the same deck for a year and the deck has by now become rote. All your opponents will know your deck and plan and will have practiced against it extensively and thus be in the same boat resulting in not only rote games but rote games that your opponents chose to play. Few players were going to show up thinking they were at a disadvantage against Valakut. I was instinctively excited by the prospect of using Koth of the Hammer against control decks but the outside view on that was that players had been taking Koth in and out of their sideboards for a long time so this wasn't an example of something players hadn't thought of. They had tried it and found it marginal so chances were that they were right.
If I played Valakut I'd be hard-pressed to play as well as a PTQ veteran with the experience I lacked or to play as well as opponents with similar experience from the other side. I'd be stuck in a gigantic field with a carbon copy version of a well-known deck. I'd have no advantages that made up for my inexperience with that deck and no points for originality. I'd have a mediocre overall strategy every time which meant that the chance of putting up an extraordinary performance and making the Top 8 under those circumstances was miniscule; by the end of the tournament I'd be playing against players who had proven they knew exactly how to beat me. It was better than going in with nothing but not by much.
The second deck to be taken seriously was Kuldotha Red which I liked to call Question because its job is to ask one Question and hope its opponent can't Answer. That Question of course is asking what your opponent is going to do about a large number of small creatures attempting to kill him on turn 4 give or take a turn depending on the quality of Kuldotha Red's hand. The deck is very good at quickly and effectively asking that Question.
It's not so good at asking a second one. All of Kuldotha Red's cards are used to assemble that first attack leaving it powerless to rebuild should the attack be dealt with. The best Answers to this Question are cards that kill much or all of Kuldotha Red's army: Ratchet Bomb Pyroclasm Slagstorm Black Sun's Zenith and Day of Judgment. If the enemy has the time to Answer Kuldotha Red is left without the cards necessary to mount another attack.
The first version I was urged to try had Lightning Bolt in it but by the third game I was asking when I could take them out because they don't help you ask your question. For a long time I've been a proponent of not playing answers in decks that are about asking questions that rely on sufficient quantities of multiple pieces to do something quick or powerful. Once I made that change the deck seemed to roll through all the standardized opponents with my list running Panic Spellbomb to make sure it had enough artifacts for Mox Opal and Kuldotha Rebirth.
There was only one little problem: Answer. As Gerry Thompson said it's tough to beat a Pyroclasm. It's like really hard. It's also hard to beat a Ratchet Bomb or a Slagstorm and everyone who wants to gets to play Ratchet Bomb. All of them count as Answer. Sam Black was planning on playing the deck at Indy at first with lots of Bolts and then without them.
We were worried at first that this would give away the correct build but there was nothing to give away. The deck was everywhere and Sam decided to run Vampires instead and he came back to tell us that Kuldotha Red was too popular to be an option. The reaction would doubtless be a rise in the number of Answers running around in other people's decks and there didn't seem to be anything to be done about that. It was a deck with a lot of raw power but if you're not resilient when players decide to prepare for you then you can't win against players who are prepared. We had to keep looking.
The third deck to be taken seriously was U/W Control. With our perception that not much U/W was making the rounds in general or at Indy it seemed like this would be a way to play a solid strategy innovate on the details and exploit our experience and superior play skill as all those years of playing old iterations transfer over nicely. All of us wanted to try the deck with Everflowing Chalice to speed the deck up a turn because it was vital in many matchups to play Jace the Mind Sculptor or Day of Judgment on turn 3 instead of turn 4. Day often wasn't fast enough against Kuldotha Red on its own on turn 4 but on turn 3 it counted as a reliable Answer on its own.
The flow of the deck when it ran Chalice was excellent and we found room by removing Squadron Hawk since one of its main purposes was to stop attacks and it wasn't doing enough to stop the types of attacks we thought were coming. Often Hawk would look downright silly. This change also meant we were able to play more counters than the competition. That meant we had more of both of the traditional tools in a control war so it seemed we would have excellent play against other control decks which our games confirmed against U/B once we learned how to play our deck properly. Ratchet Bombs made the matchup against Kuldotha Red excellent while providing an answer to an enemy Jace the Mind Sculptor or other problematic cards in other matchups.
It quickly became clear that against the type of field from Indy or the one we were at the time expecting that U/W was a solid choice and it became the deck we wanted to focus on. Our sideboard plans came primarily from brainstorming and instinct and then solidified as we tried out various options. We were clearly going to have access to four Ratchet Bombs so we would have an Answer as often as possible if asked a Question.
I championed four Baneslayer Angels out of the sideboard from the beginning and it became clear that this solved a lot of problems by going over the top of cards designed to be difficult for decks like ours to answer especially ones we did not anticipate. Both were universally strong against aggressive decks saving the majority of the sideboard to solve other problems.
A key problem against control decks is the need to take out Day of Judgment because taking that out leaves the deck largely defenseless if an opponent successfully plays a large threat. Volition Reins was a great solution to this problem allowing us to both have an excellent card for fighting over control of key controlling cards while also being able to answer a direct threat should one show up unexpectedly. Combining that with additional reliable counters to fight over key spells seemed like the obvious approach. We hoped to finish this plan off with Luminarch Ascension since that outright wins the game if your opponent gives it time to go active but we later realized there would be too many control players who would do exactly that thanks to Squadron Hawks. It looked like there was no good answer to Hawk besides having your own Hawks so we'd need to have them available.
Later when we used the Elephant Method on the deck which consists of writing out ideal realistic lists for all matchups and then trying to make the unique cards in those lists add up to 75 cards before deciding on the specific 60 for the maindeck and the specific 15 for the sideboard we encountered a curious and rare phenomenon. After looking at what we thought were the eight major matchups we only wanted 72 unique cards! This was excellent news since we had the flexibility to meet all our core needs and even take care of some extra wants depending on what was the talk of the tournament.
The reason this was possible is that once you know what you're up against you end up taking out some number of Mana Leaks and Spell Pierces so you don't need to have access to all eight. The maindeck however was proving a problem as we didn't know how to fit everything in while also running Squadron Hawk but were starting to realize that in the expected field it would be a very bad idea not to have them. Of course we didn't think of running Stoneforge Mystic which would have been better on all fronts.
The fourth deck was Laskin Black. The story was that the deck had finished 17th at Indy and thus not among the Top 16 that had been posted online (it was actually 21st) and did that well while still in extremely raw form so it was an excellent candidate for a deck that could have flown in under the radar.
At first when Sam Black told me about the deck I was highly skeptical because it clearly did not have the raw power of the other decks but it seemed to have powerful answers to the questions posed by other decks. Checking for raw power is by far the best heuristic for rejecting decks especially when time is short. I chose to look past this and fell sufficiently victim to the planning fallacy and the belief that the field would likely be largely a fixed set of targets; in theory this deck had a way to position itself well against everyone. This has been the lure of Mono-Black Control from the beginnings of time promising the removal you need against aggressive decks and the discard into massive threats and disruption that can overwhelm a control player.
The problem is that it's very easy for those plans to go horribly wrong because you're trying to answer what the other player is doing with answers that don't work on the wrong type of question. All the time you end up running into a mismatch where you can answer either creatures or spells but not the other and your opponent has the good sense to attack you with the wrong vector.
Once we got hold of Laskin's exact list we realized he had cut massive corners with his anti-control package and this wasn't going to be easy to fix. Combine that with the lack of raw power and such decks seldom end up working out. This deck was no exception even if its opponents failed to innovate. In hindsight with the rise of Caw-Blade the strategy is clearly not viable. With opponents having an excellent opportunity to innovate due to a recently released set running such a deck would in hindsight have been the height of folly even if it seemed to be performing well. Paris had less than the mean expected amount of innovation and even that was enough to invalidate the strategy. It was however deeply cool to be seriously considering a deck largely centered around Mimic Vat.
Alexander West got rightfully very frustrated at Sam and me for spending a day of our time on this concept when there were only a handful of days remaining. I argued that I saw the potential there for something special and thus thought it was worth pursuing especially as we had a good understanding of our U/W build and thus would be able to get most of what was available at our local maxima so it made sense to experiment with moving to the next level and try to find something better.
I did however sympathize greatly with his argument even at the time. As I've said many times before I like to lock in my strategy early in order to spend time refining it and I'm a big believer in that. The day before Brian Kowal had suggested a new sketch of a Poison deck which I dismissed as not promising enough given how little time we had remaining and I struck out harshly when he outright stated that he saw no merit in saying that the timing should be a major factor in whether to consider the deck.
I don't like the extent to which I went off on him as he was doing his best to help us and I appreciate that especially when he had nothing at stake himself but I often get very frustrated by this type of behavior – where players pause in the final week to try and build a deck with little raw power because they think they can trick their way past their expected opponents.
The decks almost never do their intended jobs in the first place and even if they succeed at the intended job it rarely is enough. It's a good heuristic to almost never do this unless the format has proven highly static and never do it for a Pro Tour where there's always unexpected innovation. Even under ideal conditions I would advise extreme caution. When such ideas work it's usually because they're not this type of set of responses but rather a powerful strategy that had been overlooked.
Meanwhile there was a fifth and final deck the deck that would change everything. It didn't look like much but as Brian David-Marshall pointed out the deck created situations that were rather well Hawkward…
- 4 Memnite
- 4 Ornithopter
- 2 Phyrexian Revoker
- 4 Signal Pest
- 4 Steel Overseer
- 4 Vector Asp
- 4 Ardent Recruit
- 4 Glint Hawk
Early versions made the mistake of playing cards that cost far far too much mana to play. Master's Call and Tumble Magnet are fine cards but if this deck is going to get it done you flat-out do not have that kind of time. Meanwhile we didn't have enough artifacts that cost one mana to reliably turn on Mox Opal and get our offense going quickly and the extra lands required were running the deck out of threats. Other people's versions of the deck had even worse versions of this problem attempting to run cards like Myrsmith and Lodestone Golem. They were trying to pretend this deck could play a normally paced game. You do not have that kind of time.
Steve Sadin found the answer which was to ditch everything expensive and pay whatever premium was necessary to make everything cheap. Out went all cards costing three or more mana other than Tempered Steel. Even two-drops were kept to a minimum and Chimeric Mass was reduced to one copy because getting any real use out of it was too expensive and drawing multiple copies was terrible.
The result was a much faster leaner and meaner deck. It wasn't quite as fast as Kuldotha Red but it had massively greater resilience. You can survive a Ratchet Bomb Pyroclasm or even Day of Judgment. Often a control deck (that would otherwise be in full control) will have no answer to Glint Hawk Idol or have to answer each threat individually because of Tempered Steel or have both problems. With so much removal at sorcery speed and the best black removal spell unable to hit artifact creatures a Glint Hawk Idol is frequently unstoppable and can end up winning the game on its own a situation we describe of course as Hawkward.
Early on we had dismissed Hawkward because it wasn't good enough without the tune-up described above which is likely the reason no one else built a good enough version to do serious work. Kuldotha Red was going straight through the deck before it could get set up and control decks had time to defend themselves.
Steve was claiming the deck had gotten a lot better but time was short and it was hard to believe that the solution to our problems was Vector Asp. I did try the deck out enough to realize it had become better but we didn't have a good sideboard concept and without that I wasn't interested. I wasn't that impressed by the deck pre-sideboard and when players got a chance to use their sideboards things could only get worse.
Alexander West was more interested in the deck but Steve didn't understand this until after an entire Hawkward day in Paris was gone. At that point both Alex and I had developed a lot of curiosity about the deck and a feeling that seeding blue mana into the deck was practical and might be a good use of space so as to bring in counters out of the sideboard. We weren't terribly unhappy with U/W but we weren't happy with it either. With less than a day left before the tournament we examined what we knew would be our last option.
It blew everything away.
Valakut was easy pickings going down in game one despite its mass removal and then having problems post-board with our counters which made those games even harder for them.
U/W Control was also losing both before and after sideboarding thanks to the same sideboard cards we used for Valakut and U/B seemed solid for us as well. We already knew we could beat Kuldotha Red and we had a few Ratchet Bombs in reserve to make sure.
Vampires was the sole deck that was giving us trouble and that was only when they came with red removal like Arc Trail out of the gate to take out multiple creatures with one spell. When they didn't have such answers the results were not pleasant for them.
We knew we had something unique and most importantly we knew why everyone else did not have it. It might not be good enough but that wasn't the reason we were out there all alone.
That's always a question to ask yourself when you have a deck you believe to be a rogue: If this deck is so good why didn't anyone else build it? There has to be a leap that isn't easy to make. In this case it was because there was a key insight – to drastically reduce the mana curve – that was very difficult to find and served as this deck's great filter.
That didn't mean that we had something special on our hands but together with the raw power the deck had demonstrated and our test results it meant that having something special on our hands was possible. Playing rogues that do something powerful and take advantage of not being anyone's target has a far higher success rate than playing rogues that are trying to trick wins out of their matchups.
Another justification was that this was clearly a far better deck than Kuldotha Red. It was reasonably robust against the cards designed to deal with Kuldotha Red and was also strong against Kuldotha Red so if large numbers of players were choosing Kuldotha Red this couldn't be too poor a choice.
Together we convinced the entire group to run Hawkward although Tom Martell made a wise decision at the last minute to go with Caw-Blade with the rest of us locking in great fun and a chance to win it all or die trying. As you already know we ended up with that second one with Sam Black being the sole person playing the deck to break into the Top 32. We even managed to take the great Kai Budde down with us. Whoops. We took a huge beating in the first two rounds of the tournament from a combination of bad breaks and unfamiliarity with the deck then did better later but still remained under .500 for the tournament with a record of 19-23. The total record of all decks playing Tempered Steel in the tournament was 30-32.
For this group that record is a dismal failure. A lot of that was likely unfamiliarity with the deck which I can attest definitely cost me a match. However it's doubtful familiarity would have made us look much better although I have little doubt we would've at least picked up one other win and made it back to .500. Even if not perfect our lists seem on reflection to have been quite strong and I wouldn't make any major changes. The deck is what it is and either that's good enough or it's not. It's hard to deny that Caw-Blade is currently the best deck in Standard and everyone's favorite target and that it has strong answers to us if it chooses to but we'll have to see what happens when people adjust to that.
There are of course many other tales I could also tell. There's the story of the games themselves and the strategy of the deck plays and sideboards which is a tale I plan to tell soon. There's also the story of the rest of my trip to Paris and its non-Magical delights. Telling any of those tales here however would only serve to make this even more Hawkward than it already is.