Flores Friday - Sideboarding with the Once and Future #1 Apprentices
So I'm going to be in California next week.
Of course you are, you are probably thinking. ... For the Grand Prix.
In fact, I will be an hour from the Grand Prix Sunday through Thursday. Two weeks ago, if I had thought about it for five seconds, I could probably have fixed my return flight so that I could attend the, you know, Grand Prix (instead of leaving right before it starts). In a format where I had just helped develop a deck that went two-for-two Top 8, including the win... But I didn't think about it for those five seconds. Oh well.
I actually wrote this middle section three times, and had a ton of cross-referenced links on sideboarding that spanned from Dave Price's Hatred deck from the Top 8 of Grand Prix: Seattle in the 1999-2000 season to This Girl to Sadin's Quirion Dryads in Columbus, but the whole point was really just Josh and Asher at the Neutral Ground PTQ so I decided to cut the previously interposed 2,000 words. If you didn't read Swimming with Sharks yesterday, Josh Ravitz and I positioned possibly the best archetype surprise since Critical Mass in 2005. Josh credited much of the win to his sideboard of eleven cards strong.
I was going to fabricate a quote that Josh was playing his first good sideboard in two years due to having read Fulfilling Expectations: How To Build A Sideboard That Isn't Embarrassing, but like I just said, that would have been a fabrication; anyway, Josh said to attribute the quote to Asher.
If you haven't seen the decks...
Two players, two Top 4s and the win. It doesn't get much better.
Our G/R/W was built specifically to fight the Mono-Blue and U/G decks popular in the Northeast metagame. You might have read in the other article that Asher came back from vacation cold and played fifteen games with his Predator deck, 9-1 against Mono-Blue and 4-1 against U/G, before settling. The sideboards were largely devoted to beating other decks.
Over the last year or two, one of the things that my group has really been concentrating on is sideboarding. I can't say that we are 100% spot on with every sideboard, but I think that we hit the big points most of the time... and some of the time, those side fifteens are just pristine. This past weekend, we put a new-old deck back into the shark pool largely as a metagame hunter and posted two Top
8s 4s (of two), including the PTQ winner winner. Josh and Asher played within four cards of one another (largely because Asher didn't get the last IM, it seems); Josh credits the win to not only having the correctly positioned deck, but to his sideboard, which was eleven cards strong.
"Do you know how many eleven is? Eleven is so many. Most people have nothing but blanks."
One thing that Josh insists I point out is that while Asher's deck is very close, the cards he is missing are key. Josh liked both Vesuvas as additional copies of Llanowar Reborn and as Strip Mines for Urborg, Tomb of Yawgmoth. For your approval, Josh Ravitz's sideboarding along the way to winning the PTQ:
Round 1: Mono-Blue Pickles
I figured out that I had sideboarded wrong; the correct sideboard plan is:
Round 2: U/G/W Blink
Round 3: U/R/W Control
Round 4: White Weenie
Round 5: Mono-Blue again
This matchup is a blowout... I sideboarded correctly (-1 Stonecloaker, -1 Saffi Eriksdotter, +2 Disenchant).
Round 6: U/G Control Pickles
I didn't sideboard (see finals, below); won 2-0 anyway.
Round 7: Drew versus U/G Control Pickles
Round 8: Drew versus aggro Slivers
Top 8: G/W
Top 4: G/W again
-1 Saffi Eriksdotter
+1 Fiery Justice
+4 Mystic Enforcer
+3 Temporal Isolation
Finals: U/G Control Pickles
I actually got blown out Game 1... 3/3 Saprolings are rough.
Game 2 I incorrectly boarded out Saffi, one Stonecloaker, and two Calciderms for four Mystic Enforcers... and drew into third turn 6/6 Calciderm, fourth turn 6/6 Calciderm, and blew him out, realizing I had boarded wrong. I put the Calciderms back in boarding out Mystic Enforcer and Stonecloaker (won Game 3).
Josh used eleven of his sideboard cards, but not Rebuff the Wicked, which he had previously called (to me) "the Annul of this format." Asher actually played against Mystical Teachings, and therefore did not decry their presence in his sideboard; Teachings is this deck's toughest matchup. To beat it, Asher sideboarded thusly:
+4 Mystic Enforcer
+4 Rebuff the Wicked
The sideboard strategy of this deck against both Mono-Blue transformative and Teachings is to bring in additional big threats like Mystic Enforcer, lessening the impact of the big Damnation. Asher and I actually played a couple of sets last night, with me playing Teachings, and he had Temporal Isolation boarded... but I don't think you can possibly beat Mono-Blue without four Shadowmage Infiltrators, plus I run some Bogardan Hellkites, which, while played, are not universal. Personally, I feel strongly that you should try to contain Shadowmage Infiltrator with this deck... My group has found that getting in with Jon is the best way any of our B/U control-syle decks can consistently beat the Tarmogoyf decks; stop Jonny, you've ended most of the misery.
If I were playing tomorrow, I would be tempted to run this deck, even though it is now a week old. On balance, I did not play last week, so I wouldn't be playing the same deck twice.
But wait! That’s not all...
I don't want to get into a flame war or anything, but - and I wasn't even aiming at Adrian when I wrote about 4 and 1 last week - however he decided to claim that "[My] recent article once again revisits the myth that decklists that are comprised of 4 copies or 1 copy of the cards in its list are superior," calling the 4/1 dogma "outmoded." I had a chat with Patrick Chapin about this (Patrick grew up as a Magic player with greats like Erik Lauer and Brian Schneider, despite being cited by Adrian as being on the 2/3 side of the fence). Patrick was very sober and told me that he doesn't know if 4/1 is right, "but every deck designer that inspires [him] is a devotee of the 4/1" and avoids 2/3 as much as possible.
I decided to just look up the greatest decks of all time and see what they have to say. Please note that these are literally the greatest decks of all time. I don't know that I have never designed a deck on the order of one of these, and if anyone out there thinks that there are better, more influential, more important, or more insanely brutal decks ever in the history of deck design - specifically ones not wholly zeroed in on 4/1 "dogma" - I'd love to hear about them in the forums. The only reason I can still play - certainly write - after all these years is that I believe that we learn best when we err. I sure do a lot of learning over the course of a tournament.
You probably could have stopped reading two and a half paragraphs ago. Just go study the sideboarding swaps for tomorrow (noting that we didn't have to predict the exact makeup of the metagame in order to position the correct deck and build a sideboard to cover all the bases). This next part is me just exercising how good I really am at Deck Game.
David Price - Winner, Pro Tour Los Angeles 1998
This is an interesting deck. It has two slots out of eleven that are not either 4 or 1. Dave's two-of Rathi Dragon gives us the first of the two main criteria for not wanting to play four copies of a card: not being able to cast it. Most of the best decks of all time starting from about six months before this tournament began to focus on the early turns of the game so as not to lose on development (I talked about this quite a bit last week). Rathi Dragon is not very good in Dave's twenty land deck in the opening hand, and it is questionable that he would be able to play more than one in a game.
Now the PT-winning Deadguy Red was a good beatdown deck, especially for a Block deck, and Deadguy Red was awfully influential... but what about the best beatdown deck of all time? Here is a Block version:
Osyp Lebedowicz - Winner, Grand Prix Orlando 2004
Now this deck was improved by the TOGIT guys for the very next Grand Prix. Osyp's teammate Eugene Harvey made some slight tweaks to their version on the way to a Top 8 at Grand Prix New Jersey. He successfully gambled away the Darksteel Citadels, moved Tree of Tales to the main (freeing up significant sideboard space), and tightened the main deck numbers. Note how two non-4/1 slots became only one:
Eugene Harvey - Top 4, Grand Prix New Jersey 2004
To the best of my recollection, this is the highest finishing Affinity deck ever. Okay, fine, Pierre finished higher, but despite "getting the big thing right" as Zvi would say, no one would confuse Pierre's deck with the best possible build of Affinity, not that Aeo's Aether Vial-free build is making the young girls weak in the knees. Anyway, Aeo's deck makes a very good point.
Aeo Paquette - Finalist, 2004 World Championship
4 Arcbound Ravager
4 Arcbound Worker
4 Disciple of the Vault
2 Somber Hoverguard
4 Chrome Mox
4 Welding Jar
4 Shrapnel Blast
4 Cranial Plating
4 Seat of the Synod
4 Vault of Whispers
4 Great Furnace
3 Blinkmoth Nexus
Paquette played only one slot out of eleven as a non-four. He had good reason, though. His deck only played eighteen lands. It might seem obvious, but the capabilities of all decks come from the limitations of their mana bases. Why is Steam Vents a chase rare? Why was Sakura-Tribe Elder the best card to come out of Champions of Kamigawa? Past selecting the best possible cards, the limitations on number for spells, at least in the best of decks, comes from how much mana they play. (The next deck makes this pretty explicit) ... A 24 land deck can easily play nine fours. It's logical. Often it's what we expect. A 23 land deck (my favorite), is often nine fours and a Highlander. That one two-of slot encroached on his broken base-four manabase. We'll see this in some of the other best decks, in both directions.
I don't want to dwell on mid-range decks because mid-range is almost never the best deck, but you have to respect a deck that can take on a room full of full-on Affinity decks with Aether Vial and Skullclamp, beat the best deck designer in the world in the finals, and take it all. Respect. Granted, it's probably easier when you have Tsuyoshi Fujita underneath the hood. Respect anyway, mafia king.
Masashiro Kuroda - Winner, Pro Tour Kobe 2004
How about control? This is the best control deck of all time:
Jon Finkel - Top 8, Grand Prix Kansas City 1999
2 Stroke of Genius
4 Time Spiral
4 Force of Will
4 Frantic Search
4 High Tide
4 Merchant Scroll
4 Thawing Glaciers
4 Volcanic Islands
Decks lose meaning out of context. Jon traveled to European Grand Prix tournaments. Kai made his name on the back of High Tide decks the same season. I chose this version because it was played at the end of a long season, after most of the kinks had been ironed out of the archetype, whether or not it was one of the best finishes for one of the absolute best players (though Top 8 is no slouch, not for this Top 8). No Intuition for three copies of Mind Over Matter. None of the crap. No non-four number of Thawing Glaciers (I had mine in the sideboard exclusively for the mirror match at the beginning of the season). This deck is just the best, played by the best to a Top 8 of probably the most impressive Grand Prix in U.S. history. One non-4/1 spell slot.
You might not see this as a control deck. You probably think it's a combo deck. It's not. This deck is just the best control deck ever. It manages the opponent, draws lots of extra cards, controls so tightly the game approaches the tip of a needle. It plays lands every turn. It has two different mana advantage engines. The kill is a micron thick. It is the epitome of control, control blended to pure theory.
You might be more comfortable with this:
Carlos Romao, 2002 World Champion
2 Cephalid Coliseum
1 Darkwater Catacombs
4 Salt Marsh
4 Underground River
4 Nightscape Familiar
3 Chainer's Edict
3 Circular Logic
3 Cunning Wish
3 Deep Analysis
3 Fact or Fiction
3 Memory Lapse
This is one of the most successful control decks in history, the poster child for consistency, with completely perfect Standard records on Day 1 and Day 3. Clearly it is a mess of two-of and three-of cards. Patrick wanted me to make sure I broke pattern a couple of times to show contrast even though the best decks in history are overwhelmingly 4-of / 1-of designs. However I noted last week that bullet decks (like my own Napster, or Maher Oath) are exempt from the normal rules. Why is this? Look at Carlos's deck. His best cards are Psychatog and Fact or Fiction. Why doesn't he play four Fact or Fictions? He can’t. He’s too busy playing six. The Cunning Wish breaks the 4-1 pattern. Carlos actually makes his deck less Fact or Fiction consistent by playing a fourth copy main. Bullet decks can be all over the place. Why did Jonny play two Dust Bowls in Napster? Why did we cut an Unmask? You could write a 700 page book on the theories required to build that one deck (I did). Carlos has a bit of a combo kill, himself.
What about real combo decks?
Here is the only deck ever to demand an emergency ban:
Buehler and Lauer - Broken Jar
One non-4 / non-1 slot. Interestingly, they let Erik make a deck with more than one Yawgmoth's Will... so he played the full two.
The restriction of Yawgmoth's Will is actually quite interesting. Speaking of only being able to play one Yawgmoth's Will, Pat is always using Vintage as a measuring stick for theory in our conversations. Vintage is so twisted and gnarled and eating its own tail it sometimes feels like a different game than the one that I write about. However, the reason is that it is so wide in breadth that it can cherry pick to the point of being completely myopic on card selection. We talk about playing the best cards... but the Vintage boys can play Ancestral Recall and Black Lotus! We don't know from the best cards. Anyway, Patrick's argument - you'll like this one - is that in Vintage he by necessity plays only 1-of and 4-of cards! Patrick only plays ones and fours in Type One.
What about more famous combo decks? Here is the one that I always cite as the scariest deck of all time:
Scott McCord - Top 4, Grand Prix Philadelphia 2000
Scott, who is one of the bugbears of four-of leering over my shoulder, is a big nonconformist on this one... A whopping two non-1 / non-4 slots. Note the full four Donates.
Context again: By Grand Prix: Philadelphia, Trix was a known quantity. The metagame had become double-inbred with Trix haters going with the Elvish Lyrist and Aura of Silence, prompting Trix mages to add colors, play all nonbasics, whatever weird stuff they were doing. Scott went basics, making his deck more consistent, and more resistant to non-discard interaction. He went for the full four Donates, preserving his combo. In a sea of Soul Wardens and bitter hate, he led the room for two days, beating eventual winner Trey Van Cleave twice before dropping a manascrew match in the Top 4. His is always the Trix I choose when I go on the "scariest deck of all time" spiel.
All time is over, of course.
Trix was the scariest deck of all time. However as recently as the qualifying tournaments for the present PTQ season, the new best deck in the history of Magic has been unveiled. You might have missed it. No, no. It is not the Predator deck Josh played, the main (original main?) subject of this article, though Josh says that Predator.dec is as good a PTQ positioning as Critical Mass was at the end of Kamigawa Block, which is actually saying something as its only two tournament appearances were PTQ win and Grand Prix Top 8. Sadly the greatest deck of all time ["for a single tournament," which, really is all that matters] was built for a prop format.
Steve Sadin - Winner, Grand Prix Columbus
It is literally dizzying how advanced a piece of deck development this piece is. Zero non-1 / non-4 slots... and "outmoded," apparently.
Patrick suggested that I post one or two decks from each of the top five deck designers of all time, which according to him, includes YT. I don't remember all the names he chose, but it seemed to be more than five, so I just went for as many Best Deck Designer On Earth titleholders I could think of off the top of my head, listing a deck or two designed by each during his tenure as Best Deck Designer On Earth.
Erik Lauer — U.S. Nationals 1998
Lauer built the same deck as Dave Price to almost a card. Most people don't remember he was playing for Top 8 but lost to Finkel's Silver Wyvern in the last round of Swiss. Lauer - one of Magic's clear Big Three - is too easy. He is the paragon of four-of. What about his teammate (also Big Three)? One two-of; 22 lands, as with Aeo.
Brian Schneider - Suicide King
This deck was played in three tournaments. Becker made Top 4 and literally forgot to pay for Carnophage against (I think) Justin Polin, lost with Polin on one. Francis Keyes and I both played it the last week of the PTQ season. Winner and winner. Top 8, Top 1, Top 1? Zvi says bschneid never stopped being the best deck designer in the world, he just designed from the wrong side of the curtain, so we never saw how good he was while he was Lead Developer. One two-of breaks the nine 4s... But 22 lands again.
Rounding out the Big Three, and probably the actual best deck designer of all time, though all of these guys worked both sides of the velvet rope, is of course Zvi himself. Here is a deck he used to win a Pro Tour.
Zvi Mowshowitz - Winner, PT Tokyo 2000
I don't think Ryan Fuller was ever the best deck designer on the planet, but after ten years of Pro Tour, he is the only 14-0 in Swiss history. Unlike Zvi, who had no 2- or 3-of breaking the beautiful numbers on his winner winner, Ryan had two 2-ofs... Then again, with four copies of his deck in the Top 8, Team ABU failed to post two identical builds. Shrug. Fair's fair.
Ryan Fuller - Top 8 PT Tokyo 2000
People forget that there were any Best Deck Designers On Earth between Zvi and Fujita, but even if you don't count guys like Osyp or YT, Rob Dougherty was a definite monster for more than a year. This is his well-known Benzo deck; Rob upgraded from Top 8, Top 8, Virtual Top 8 to legitimate Pro Tour finals a year later.
Rob Dougherty - Finalist, Pro Tour Houston
4 City of Traitors
This deck is like the Dead Sea Scrolls. When they found the Dead Sea Scrolls they were all scared the Bible had been madly adulterated as it passed through the centuries, but - at least according to the Dead Sea Scrolls - not so much. Rob is famous for random 61-card decks, so I was thinking maybe his Benzo would be all over the place, but even this deck - with Vampiric Tutor and Entomb both a legitimate crazy bullet deck two times over - has only one random two-of. It's gorgeous ones and gorgeous fours left and right.
Gabriel Nassif. Ah, Gab. Here is a Best Deck Designer On Earth that will not be classified, not by the likes of me. His decks have all kinds of weird numbers. We love him for them. Gab breaks my rule, flaunts convention, kills many a darling as he compresses the needs of a deck down to the smallest requisite mathematics. I will say I once asked Gab why his U/W deck - the deck that locked him into Player of the Year - didn't have four Eternal Dragons, which I thought was unacceptable.
His response: "It was probably wrong."
How unsatisfying! How beautifully unsatisfying!
Fujita, though, my favorite, is a paragon! He is a saint! Pick a Fujita deck, they're all fours. Here is his most famous:
RDW - Ninth :( Stupid Ibamoto :(
Let's skip the reigning Resident Genius. We hear from him every Friday and he only ever talks about four decks. Let's instead skip to the present best deck designer on the planet, whether or not he won this year's Resident Genius ballot.
Mark Herberholz - PTQ Winner, 2002
You didn’t see that coming, did you? This is the deck Mark used to get on the Pro Tour. He is a chameleon today, and most of his flashy designs are for Teachings- or Gifts-based bullet decks that, again, defy the normal rules of consistency and redundancy, if not card power (that's why you'll see the full three Mystical Teachings and Gifts Ungivens in most decks). Let this be a point of inspiration for any of you slogging it out through the PTQs tomorrow, especially those of you who have read some of Mark's recent forum posts. U/G Threshold is the best.
Anyway, I'm sure Adrian would be able to point at just as many counter-examples. Okay, let's be honest. He won't. Not "just as many" anyway. There aren't any better decks than the ones I posted at the beginning of this rant, in any category. He would probably be able to throw some ugly lists out there for at least some of the cream of the crop designers... My point is that 1-of / 4-of design is not "outmoded" and not to nitpick, but I think that Adrian's diatribe on breaking dogma is actually misguided. Most good deck designers break four-of based on how much mana their decks require. They cut the most expensive cards first, like the one Masticore in Buehler Blue, or some Hammers like in the Lauer deck, above, because they want to keep their openings as consistent - and mana consistent - as possible. I don't think anyone wants to come in putting a ripple of inconsistency, a slight disconnect in card efficiency and power, into their designs, but they have to compromise in order to keep to the amount of mana they need for their decks (Becker and Dougherty compromise a little less).
Adrian and I actually agree on some big picture stuff, probably the biggest picture stuff in the abstract, but I think that we approach the process of deck design very differently. I actually want to have the best possible plan and to make my deck accomplish what it can, which is to perform as best as possible in executing the best plan, in the general direction of all of my opponents, as often as I can. I will incorporate funky sideboard strategies, but that only happens when I can control big variables, like the relative value of the opponent's plan. Adrian, on the other hand, has much more ambitious ideas than I do. He wants to execute on these ideas in part because they are clever - cleverer certainly than most opponents' ideas - and partly because he can sometimes gain value from the fact that his confused opponents will usually make mistakes when pressed by a strange plan. Sometimes his ideas are very effective, like when he innovated Necropotence in a combo deck... That was awesome! Putting an Orim's Chant on an Isochron Scepter is actually quite enduring (though I heard that was Sol's idea, but I am not on the team any more). However many times he would ask me how to make an extravagant idea more effective in actual tournament play and my response would be to ask him why he would want to execute on that idea at all anything that is not the best is offensive; he is the kind of person who will continue to work at an idea forever if he likes it enough. I am the kind of person who is no longer capable of playing the same deck in two straight tournaments. In my experience, 4-of / 1-of is the best, or at least indicative of knowing what cards are in the format; 2-of / 3-of doesn't suck, per se, but is usually indicative of not knowing what cards are good.