Lately I've wanted to start carrying around a notebook to record random thoughts in. The worst is when you have a good idea don't have a full train of thought to carry it out and then the trail goes cold when you forget about it later. This article started out along these lines: a few good ideas here and there that were never enough for a full article on their own. Found months later and cobbled together they make a point.
How to Choose a Deck
Let's start from the top. The first thing about any event is simply assembling a 75. After this point I'd be willing to bet half the event is already eliminated. How do you go about ensuring you're in a position to win the event before round one? It varies by event.
Anything below a PTQ:
Play whatever you want. Seriously the number one mistake I see people make in local events is not realizing half the point is improvement. Try new things or just jam the same old thing if you want to tighten up your play. I've talked about this before with Limited in that people aren't willing to go wild at FNM and then lose because they don't know if something is good or not; the same thing applies here. Of course the other half is fun. I'm not saying that just straight up winning isn't fun for myself or other people (or that the converse of playing an unplayable deck isn't miserable) but when it's an event you paid $5 store credit to play in and the big game is winning $30 credit back you can probably afford to incinerate a week doing something like casting Infernal Contract just to see if it works.
Pro Tour Qualifiers:
The primary way to win a PTQ is on skill but more on the end of eliminating negative skill-related issues. Make fewer mistakes than they do and you will win. As a result you want a deck that makes your opponent's mistakes matter. Also at a PTQ you can at most afford one match loss. This means you can't afford unwinnable matchups unless they're rare enough that you can expect to face them once and will almost never see them in Top 8. Some examples of good PTQ decks:
Faeries last Extended season: Every time they didn't know how to play around your tricks you gained incremental value. Compare to something like W/U Control where you're trying to line up your answers as they curve out and you can legitimately lose if they just play their cards. Pure reactivity is not the goal.
Zoo: Conserving life and board position is very difficult and it was easy for someone to slip up. Compare to something like White Weenie where you are only attacking in one way and the onus is more on you to maximize your threats against their expected answers instead of allowing them to screw up.
Affinity Dredge at times: The mistake can be them not testing and underestimating what is required to beat your deck.
As a side note most of what I have said here also applies to the StarCityGames.com Open Series but one bad matchup isn't the end of the world. Victory is nice but when the primary prize is split-able cash it isn't as big of an issue if you lose a round or two earlier. It's no longer the old set of steak knives for second place unless you only care about taking home a trophy.
Grand Prix are slightly different than PTQs. While you can apply some of the same characteristics early on in the event the large number of players and rounds changes a few things.
First is that the random decks are weeded out much less rapidly. If 40% of your deck is lands and you remove one it makes much more of a difference in odds if you are playing 40 cards as opposed to 240 (the old Battle of Wits floods out more dilemma). The still-live bracket also stretches out further into the X-2 bracket over the first nine rounds making your potential matchups a much broader sample of the field. Winning round one as your out to not playing against a random deck is replaced with making day 2.
Second is that due to a combination of incentive and the additional rounds play skill starts leveling out late in the event. You won't be playing against a Luis Scott-Vargas or Brian Kibler every round but come the X-2 bracket in round 12 you are probably facing down people who can't be counted on to throw games to you. You need to be actively winning the match as opposed to just letting them lose. Note this is not the same in terms of who is being aggressive or controlling in a game but is a similar concept in terms of whose plays actually dictate who wins the match.
Third is that the ability to afford multiple losses and the flatter prize structure lets you play decks with a bad matchup with less fear of being punished. To take a recent example I wouldn't show up with Valakut into a field of Caw-Blade like GP Texas last year but showing up to a Legacy GP knowing you are soft to Reanimator but good against every other deck isn't a disaster. The exception is if your only goal is to win the event and second place just won't do but while this is a fine mentality to have during the event it's almost never the actual truth barring odd Pro Point scenarios.
As a result usually the decks you want to be playing at Grand Prix are those that have an edge in power level more so than just letting you leverage skill. You need a deck that just beats random garbage and can win matches if your opponent is playing flawlessly and you aren't. This isn't to say you can't metagame a bit but your deck needs a default plan against anything.
If you compare this to a lot of what I have talked about in why I like and dislike decks it should be no surprise I do well at Constructed Grand Prix. Decks that can reliably perform against anything random with maybe one bad matchup encompass most of what I play at events.
Welcome to the next level.
The primary difference here is you can assume almost anyone you play against has tested extreme amounts. You aren't going to pull one over on them just by showing up and playing the obvious best deck.
Here you have two options:
Metagame: If the known best deck is level zero you want to play the deck that beats it and probably want to inbreed your deck slightly knowing other people are going to aim to do the same. The example that immediately comes to mind is Splinter Twin at Pro Tour Philadelphia. Level one was Primeval Titan and Cloudpost and the deck that beat Titans was combo. Twin not only crushed Post as a combo deck but by having the ability to maindeck disruption you had the edge in the combo mirror. It didn't really matter that you were soft against Zoo as that deck for the most part didn't make it past the sea of Glimmerpost triggers.
Play something that is good but not prepared for aka go rogue: This isn't rogue as mash together some mediocre combo deck but in the sense of a deck that is perfectly reasonable if only slightly less powerful in exchange for not being something people are preparing for. Think White Weenie at Pro Tour Amsterdam or Mono-Green at Pro Tour San Juan. Once the formats settled down both of these decks were very reasonable to prepare for but for that first event they were outside the range of what people had designed their decks for.
The Exception to the Rule:
When the deck is actually just that good. Sometimes the format is obviously broken and there's nothing you can do about. Hulk Flash Jund Thopter-Depths Twin-Blade. Note that this overlaps with the big goal of Grand Prix (broken decks tend to crush random piles) and often bleeds into point two of Pro Tours.
Finally here is one quote from Brian Kibler last week that needs to be restated:
"The most important part of testing—whether Limited or Constructed—is getting a feel for things. Data can be useful but data lies."
Take this to heart. Your deck can be 70% against the field but unless you understand why and what matters you aren't getting anywhere.
Leaps in Comprehension
Maybe you chose the right deck. Congrats you can win the event.....after ten plus rounds of play.
How do you get better? Trust me there isn't some magic formula to winning events (pun intended). There are kernels of truth amongst all the articles out there but it's up to each person to pick them out and follow them.
Instead I want to talk about what it looks like when someone does get good.
First you see them as the arrogant kid/dude who never really gets any better. You watch them play they make a million mistakes in plan execution then lose seven turns later when they draw two lands to their opponent's two threats and complain when they should have won four turns ago. They will never learn there's always nothing they could've done to prevent the loss: the standard self-deluding complaints.
Then something changes.
Gavin Verhey talked about having "The Aura" in the past but really all that happens is you reach a point of understanding. It's not some mystical haze of unstop-ability that follows one around; it just all makes sense to the person in question. You no longer make decisions because you think that your choice is right you just know or feel it is.
The first step from A to B? I don't know if there's a specific trigger but I can label the visible effects.
At first I thought that how people reacted to losses was also important but the only key is being over it by the next round. I know people who rage out for the next ten minutes I know people who slink into the corner and mope around: it doesn't matter as long as you come back fresh.
The thing I've noticed the most is a switch in the way they talk about matches. The phrase that starts catching on is "I should have done X" and not just after a loss. Of course they also have to be accurate and relevant. Sure you could have made six plays differently to have a 20% chance of winning but sometimes the real reason you lost was that your deck featured Jace the Mind Sculptor and Ancient Ziggurat.
The other correlation I've noticed is people often really jump forward at the start of a season. Even if they were making steady progress before it is often difficult for them to catch up to those that were even marginally there at the start of a season. It's always possible to break in but I've made a few called shots on people making it based on this. If you suddenly get much better at learning about the game it's easier to outpace everyone when the slate is wiped clean.
Of course there's usually a downswing. Once you start making winning look easy it gets a lot harder to point out your mistakes. Then something changes like the format you take your ability to make the right decisions for granted and everything falls apart. Of course you are now back where you started. The guy who deserves all of his wins but you should be slightly better at getting out of it. Of course this cycle is hard for even the best to break but the key is figuring out how to minimize the down time.
Again this isn't something I know how to do but for what it's worth a good start is something along the line of Sam Stoddard's Fearless Magical Inventory. Be brutally honest with yourself as you probably know better than anyone else what you are doing wrong. For example I might say I cling too hard to shells that are already solid or easy to tune and dismiss new options if I frame them incorrectly at first and am then wary of transplanting their powerful elements to a new engine.
Of course just saying it doesn't fix it. This isn't one of those exaggerated moments where you admit you have to step it up and then one training montage later you are ready to go. Your next action has to be an active decision about what you want to try doing.
A Closing Note on Shortcuts
When I first wrote it this last section was a bit heavier on shortcut terminology but that got shifted to a previous article. There's a lot of overlap on comfort with decisions and shortcuts but something I glanced over both when I talked about the subject and in my draft was the necessity of pruning shortcuts as you get better and look at more advanced decisions.
Let's introduce you to a real life scenario I've run into. One player who tends to be part of our local team drafts has a peculiar tendency: he either plays all or none of a card in Limited. It's either three Wall of Tanglecord or zero even if the other options are having 21 playables or cutting a good card. The logic he uses to defend this decision is that a card should either be good enough to make your main deck or not and that discerning between the corner cases of wanting exactly X or X plus one of an effect are too complicated to judge correctly. Obviously this is not directly true but to some extent is and is probably perfectly reasonable for someone just starting out.
The problem is that this player is someone who should know better. He has played on the Pro Tour has near misses on both a Nationals and Grand Prix Top 8 and got second at a PTQ despite showing up to the event extremely mentally compromised. This is just something he picked up on early and never decided to look back at to consider if it is still correct.
Some shortcuts remain true across the ages but it's always worth going back and reexamining your assumptions from time to time.
Time for the obligatory deck advice: I would recommend Raphael Levy's list from Pro Tour Dark Ascension for those playing Standard this weekend and not just because it's appropriate given this article's title.
- 2 Wurmcoil Engine
- 4 Avacyn's Pilgrim
- 4 Birds of Paradise
- 2 Inferno Titan
- 1 Llanowar Elves
- 4 Elesh Norn, Grand Cenobite
I jokingly suggested it on the basis of being able to function despite running Inferno Titan Avacyn's Pilgrim and Darkslick Shores but now having seen it in action the deck is the real deal. Just making a ton of Titans early on is more than good enough to win games. People still don't respect it with the proper graveyard hate but even if they did you can just play fair Magic and cast some six- and seven-drops from hand with your mana guys. Yes the land counts look like a joke but they are within a couple tweaks of flawless. Even if you opt for something more traditional between this deck and Heartless you need to be prepared for people cheating out all sorts of monsters (not just the usual Primeval Titans). I'm hoping to see Titans and Praetors flying around next weekend when I commentate the StarCityGames.com Open in Memphis with Adrian Sullivan. Until then time to jot down some more fragments.