There is this moment when you fall out of love with a deck.
Now hardened veterans will tell you that you shouldn't fall in love with a deck. It clouds your judgment. It makes you forgive things you shouldn't forgive. It makes you hold on a little too long.
But it isn't the only thing. Love can keep the deck in the air when it ought to fall down. Sheer force of will can make you pull the wins out because you give a damn.
This is part of the reason that Brian Kibler has on more than one occasion voiced his support for advocacy playtesting—in essence people play a deck that they advocate in playtesting with the hope that you will give that deck the best shot. As long as you listen to the deck and know when it's about to keel over and die this is a good call.
Sometimes though it's easy to succumb.
The Past as Prologue
I've been working on Blue-White Control for a long time.
Here is one older version of the list back when I was doing work with Team Mythic for Worlds in 2011:
The deck was constantly shifting. At the time B/U was a pretty huge part of the meta. It's actually pretty strange to see some of the playtesting notes. Check out this from the email list where I recounted some Magic Online testing:
B/U Control: 10-0 (1 Skeletor 9 Drownyard)
Solar Flare: 11-0
W/U Control: 2-0
W/G Juza: 7-0
W/G Tokens: 3-1
Tempered Steel: 1-1
Black Infect: 3-0
Puresteel WW: 1-0
R/B Vampires: 1-0
Mono Red: 3-2
U/G Aggro-Control: 2-0
Delver with Red: 5-2
U/W Illusions: 8-2
U/W Geist + Equipment: 1-0
U/W Invisible Stalker + Equip: 1-0
Wolf Run Ramp: 3-1
Wolf Run Dungrove: 6-0
White Wolf Run: 2-5
Genesis Wave: 0-1
W/U/G Pod: 2-2
G/B Rock: 1-0
As you can see the metagame was quite different. Note "Geist + Equipment" and "Invisible Stalker + Equip." The U/W Illusions list was the aggro-control list of the time for the most part. Now I don't know what kind of handicap one gets in two-person and eight-person queues on Magic Online (surely there is some if you are a serious player) but I was getting 79% match win percentages against the field with absurd numbers against control decks. I was practically already in love.
At the same time Andrew Cuneo on our list was working on something of his own. We were remarkably similar. Here was his list at that moment:
You may recall that his eventual version did okay for him at Worlds.
As similar as these decks are conceptually they were still pretty off from each other. Here are the differences moving from my deck to his:
Andrew and I never quite saw eye-to-eye on our lists; I still stand by mine at the time and he has every reason to stand by his. I was pretty pumped about where I was at. Bob Maher said some kind words on our list about the deck telling the list he was really impressed with it. It felt good to hear.
On the small stage of the Magic Online universe I used the deck as a virtual ATM. Cuneo on his end did much better.
Tracking Things Onwards and Upwards
When a deck gives you consistent returns you don't walk away from it. In the ramping up of the playtesting for Worlds in 2011 I'd developed a pretty deliberate note-taking system for matches designed to give me a sense of what was happening with a deck.
For the curious here are the things that I tracked:
Archetype played match result play or draw for all games game results username event type (and stage) and random notes.
Through the power of Excel I discovered some interesting things. I won 78% of all of my game 1s on the play but only 65% of all of my game 1s on the draw for example. Quite a hefty result of the coin toss! The data collection gave me a sense that even though I loved another deck that I was working on it was lagging well behind this one in terms of results.
But as Matthias Hunt said once after an SCG Open Series we were working together how much credence can you give to Magic Online numbers when it comes to evaluating a deck?
I don't know. I do know that right now it is where I'm able to get in most of my playtesting so it is one of my only data sets to work with. You do what you can…
I played it onwards. I honed it.
Eventually my friend Jimmie Linville (of Daniel and the Lion fame—you should check him and his band out at Gen Con if you get a chance) and I both played the list at the SCG Standard Open in Madison. Afterwards we conferred and made the necessary changes. I did okay with the list at GP Minneapolis but one of the changes I'd made (against Jimmie's urging) was hurting the deck: I'd cut the Druidic Satchel.
Now Jimmie and I had met in Madison Wisconsin where I live (he just moved away). I was a student and then a grad student and instructor at University of Wisconsin and you would know the UW if you've been here is full of hip kids. Hipsters even. Jimmie in a fit of brilliance started calling the deck "U/W Hipster Control" because of the Druidic Satchel in the deck a man purse of such hipstery proportions that any self-respecting U/W Hipster was likely to be wearing one. It fit.
And I'd cut it.
In a win-and-in (to make Day 2) feature match against Michael Jacob I lost after establishing complete control. I just flooded out. And in a few other matches I just flooded out. What I hadn't realized about the Satchel was just how much work it was doing in keeping things like that from happening. I hadn't noticed the smoothness of long-game draws because the Satchel was just hiding the pain. It needed to go back in.
Long testing sessions finished and I was at once again a high win percentage. Yes it was all on Magic Online but I'd gotten the numbers with 84 matches in up to about 81% (68-16) versus the full field.
I was ready to jam.
Here I the list I played to 9th place a few weeks ago at a PTQ run by Pastimes in Chicago:
In the course of the PTQ here was my path:
Round 1: Mono-Black Control – 2-0 W
Round 2: Delver (Pike) – 2-1 W
Round 3: Delver (Pike) – 1-2 L
Round 4: Delver (Pike) – 2-0 W
Round 5: U/W/R Control – 2-0 W
Round 6: Esper Control – 1-1-1 (a heartbreaking time-out with the kill present) D
Round 7: G/R Aggro – 2-0 W
It was pretty devastating but you move on.
And Then M13
In the weeks since that event I kept playing the list even as the meta changed here and there. Of course the biggest change hit and hit hard: M13 hit the streets.
Here was where trouble entered paradise.
There really is something pretty magical about having a deck that is winning 80% versus the field. It almost becomes hard to playtest anything else because it is just so much fun winning and the payoffs are great to be playing. This is particularly true in those glorious moments when Gold Queues are around.
What I didn't notice was that the spokes were coming off.
I was still winning often to the chagrin of opponents. Shaheen Soorani let me have a stream of frustration after I knocked him out of a Magic Online PTQ. You couldn't he told me possibly be beating Delver with that deck. The data told me differently and I let him know that but he wasn't hearing it. I'd knocked him out of the event and in the next round I was knocked out by Delver (with Pikes). This is the hardest version for me but overall I knew Delver was a winner for me with the Pike list more or less coming down to who won the first game coin flip and other builds going closer to 70% my way.
Well the data was telling me that. But I'd done something crucially wrong:
I hadn't reset the data post-M13.
Oh I was still beating Delver. But what I wasn't noticing was the creeping in of losses. When you have an about 80% win percentage as you start to slip it just creeps in in small doses.
I was still beating Delver all right. And I was beating Esper or other control decks or any of the midrange blue decks. But I was mostly losing to everything else. And unfortunately these decks were becoming popular.
This past weekend's PTQs were a disaster. 2-2 drop and 0-2 drop. Ugh.
Reviewing the data but corrected for the new meta I was at 57%. If they were blue I was beating them pretty handily (74%). But if they weren't I was at 37.5%. I actually don't know about an old deck Zombies because I haven't played against a Zombies deck since M13 came out so I have zero data on it but maybe that matchup is still good.
All I know is that I was playing the same list and I was getting stomped.
And to be dramatic about it so was my heart.
Endings: Breaking Up Flirting with New Decks or Working It Out
So what do you do when the deck you love just isn't able to make you happy anymore?
Well there are two things you can do: you can break up or you can work on it.
Now I'm not sure about you but for me breaking up is hard to do. I still remember a girlfriend that I had in high school. She was completely amazing in so many ways. She was beautiful and smart and kind and and and and and… She was a laundry list of good things. But something wasn't quite right for me. One of my best friends an awesome girl named Ariel urged me to break up with her but I couldn't quite get myself to do it. One day I was going to do it but she did something amazing for me on the day I was so I couldn't make it be that day. Eventually I did though. It was a hard day but things looked brighter after that.
And so it was with U/W Control. I spent a bunch of hours flirting with playing Mono-Green Infect with Mono-Black Control with Red Beats. Infect was doing the best but it just wasn't showing the kind of numbers that U/W Control used to. Sighing I set aside the other decks picked up U/W and had a four or five match winning streak. This was two days before the PTQs. Well I decided I guess that I know what I'm going to play with.
What I was doing though was being blinded by the past. If I had looked more closely I would have noticed that the winning streak was a group of non-Pike Delver decks Esper Midrange and Esper Control. I just couldn't get over the fact that I felt like I owed the deck one last go 'round.
Here was the first PTQ:Round 1: Mono-Green Infect – 2-1 W
Round 2: Mono-Green Infect – 1-2 L
Round 3: Delver (Hero) – 2-1 W
Round 4: Naya Aggro – 1-2 L
I (jokingly) blame this last loss on Brian Kowal for listening to him when he told me to mulligan a five land Talisman Terminus hand on the draw. I bet I woulda won it off the top!
He and I worked on another list that felt really solid. This list is about 93% Kowal:
- 4 Phyrexian Metamorph
- 4 Birds of Paradise
- 4 Borderland Ranger
- 4 Llanowar Elves
- 4 Strangleroot Geist
- 1 Thragtusk
- 1 Ulvenwald Tracker
- 1 Wolfir Silverheart
- 4 Zealous Conscripts
I won a ton with this list but ultimately I knew I was going to retry U/W Hipster Control the next day. I just couldn't quit it despite everything.Round 1: Four-Color Pod – 0-2 L
Round 2: Ceta Pod – 1-2 L (_ShipItHolla)
The first loss came from a critical card from Pod against me: Acidic Slime. The second against Michael Hetrick came as a shock. I was up a game at 12 life with Elesh Norn and Satchel in play and a Gideon in hand against a blank board with a Pod. He dropped Hellrider turned it into Zealous Conscripts and I was still alive unless he had another haste creature. An Image on Conscripts made that a reality (and also amusingly meant I would have died even if I had had out my Gideon).
It was an impressive kill.
Hetrick after tweeted about beating a Cuneo Control list with Dispense Justice largely I think because it was so bizarre.
I do think it is worth talking about the strange cards.
One Dispense Justice has been a card that has been in the deck for a long time. Occasionally it leaves the fold but it always manages to find a way back in. You just end up finding it with the library manipulation of the deck and you can either use it or lose it. Against most decks it is a really reasonable removal spell but against some decks it is utterly devastating. A big issue with the deck is that you want to be able to threaten instant removal like a black deck but you don't have the tools. Dispense Justice goes a long way towards this end. Disperse does similar things functioning as "bad" black removal but with a different element too. Marrow Shards also serves this function but it can utterly destroy people at times and can be even more effective with Snapcaster to help.
Disperse is just useful. More than one and you end up losing too much in the way of cards over the course of a match but it can function as a pseudo-counterspell by protecting one of your own permanents. It can act similarly in re-bouncing a spell to counter later making a build-your-own after-the-fact Force of Will. But the big thing about the card is that sometimes you just need to get rid of something and Disperse can do it. In testing with Mythic one thing that three of us (me Andrew Cuneo and Ben Dempsey) independently came to the same conclusion on was that Oblivion Ring was garbage. Disperse might be "bad" but it still ended up being incredibly useful against nearly everyone and only really got sided out against some Primeval Titan decks.
The actual countermagic came out of the realization of how bad Mana Leak was. After M13 I think this may be even more so. In this configuration the deck was trying to fight Delver and other decks and this was the space it came to.
Four Inkmoth Nexus might look strange but the deck can kill remarkably quickly with Elesh Norn. In addition to that it helps make Dispense Justice more powerful which is actually a really important thing at the moment.
Other than that much of the top end is just the typical ridiculously powerful cards that the deck wants. But the meta is different and the deck needs to be different too.
After reflecting on the metagame's shift I've made some changes that I think might help with where the current meta has gone. Delver it seems clear still exists but it isn't the same as it once was. Things are a little faster now…
But if you want to make things work you have to work on them… Things need to change.
The shift of the deck is decidedly back in the direction of creatures as the main threat. Stripped from the maindeck are one Negate two Mana Leak one Marrow Shards and one Tamiyo. In their place are one Dispense Justice one Phyrexian Metamorph one Gideon Jura and another Elesh Norn/Cavern of Souls combo. I've loved the Marrow Shards but it truly is an incredibly narrow card and sometimes you just need to do more than that.
The essential idea of the changes is to shift the deck to more reliably be able to survive into dropping down an Elesh Norn. Normally a part of that survival would be cards like Mana Leak but at this point Cavern of Souls is just to ubiquitous to be able to get much mileage out of the card. With that gone though you do need to have more cards that just deal with the table. Justice/Metamorph/Gideon are a part of making that happen. With Elesh Norn as the plan remember the magic number: nine. This is the amount of life you might lose from an untimely Zealous Conscripts.
One thing that Brian Kowal said a long while ago about sideboarding is that you shouldn't have a specific sideboard plan for matchups so much as an idea of what cards are valuable from the board and an understanding of what is happening when you play a particular person. So with that in mind here are some sideboarding concepts:
Negate is specifically for fighting counterspell wars (like versus Delver or Control) or against powerful spells in decks with a lot of spells. Dissipate is there for a late-game hard counter. Marrow Shards is against tiny weenie swarms Inkmoth Nexus and Moorland Haunt. Terminus is for Reanimation strategies and swarm. Tamiyo is against non-Angel beatdown and versus Control. Karn and Volition Reins to go over-the-top in slower matchups. Timely Reinforcements is to buy time. Divine Offering is for cards it can target. Ratchet Bomb is a catchall but particularly useful against weenies and Delver.
I expect I'll still keep working on this ol' deck. I just love(d?) it too much. But in the meantime I'm trying some other decks out. There's a pretty sweet looking pair of black decks that have my eye and Kowal keeps telling me that with a little work G/R could be the way.
Until next week
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