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Things I’ve Learned

 

Believe it or not, people actually come to me for advice on decks. I know right? Took me by surprise too. Because I’ve been there and because I know how hard it is to find someone to be helpful and provide constructive criticism, I always try to help out with advice when I can. People like Conley Woods, Mike Flores, Jesse “Smi77y” Smith and Patrick Chapin have provided me with so much knowledge, both directly and indirectly, that I feel like it’s my duty to pass it on. Kind of like that book in American Pie, y’know?

 

Deckbuilding is hard. No no, bear with me. When I say that, I mean building your OWN deck is hard. Physically collecting the cards to play the latest Gerry Thompson Delver version is really rather easy. I’m not about to turn this into the age-old netdecking vs brewing argument (my stance on that has changed DRASTICALLY over the last 6 months anyway,) but the fact remains that many people prefer to build something that is uniquely them. And bravo! I think that part of the learning process of this game requires us to go through that stage, where we explore our own ideas and stoutly reject anything else. For some players it is drastically shorter than others, but like learning to ride a bike it will eventually come to most people who want it.

 

Like a parent watching his first child grow up, I often see the same mistakes I used to make running through the decklists I receive, and I knowingly shake my head with a wry grin. My mother always told me that when I had kids of my own, I would find myself saying the same things to them that she was saying to me. Of course I was an adolescent and I knew better, so I scoffed at this obviously ludicrous assertion. I was never going to be as strict, as stuffy and as unfair as MY mother! (As an aside, I had the least strict and stuffy mother of anyone I know.)She was right, of course. Certain life lessons have to be taught, and the way you were taught them tends to be the way you pass them on. With that in mind, and with the hope that people who listen to my podcasts will read this and find some value in it, I’d like to share some of what I’ve learned.

 

Lesson One: What are you doing with your mana?

Magic is a logic problem mixed with a resource management game. Cards in hand, cards in your library, permanents and mana are your resources, and in general the person who makes the best use of them will win. Each player can play one land a turn and draw one card a turn. If you have some way to bend or break those building-block rules of the game, you can put yourself ahead.

 

With mana though, it is not enough to just have more of it available. What matters most is what you DO with that mana. Let’s illustrate with an example. Josh is trying to build a WBG Tokens deck. He puts many powerful cards: Doomed Traveler, Blade Splicer, Gather the Townsfolk, Intangible Virtue, Lingering Souls. At the four-mana slot, he includes Parallel Lives. Doubling the tokens he can get seems like a great plan to him, and he’s seen the card in action doing some very powerful things in both Limited and EDH. Josh takes his deck to FNM, and Josh loses. A lot.

 

Parallel Lives is a skill-testing card. The effect it has is undoubtedly a powerful one, but is it worth the cost? I don’t just mean 3G, which is actually quite good for the effect. I mean the opportunity cost, a term I got from Limited Resources (if you’re not listening to that podcast, you are doing it very wrong). Parallel Lives occupies a spot in your deck and a slot on your mana curve. Optimally you want it in play as early as possible, which means you are likely tapping out to play it. It then has no effect on the board until you untap and draw a card. That gives your opponent a whole turn to deal with it with sorcery-speed effects, basically invalidating your entire turn and making you “waste” four mana. It also encourages bad play, as you will be tempted to hold back your token generators until you have this card in play.

 

Compare this with casting Garruk Relentless. At the same mana cost you can instantly impact the board, either by creating a token or killing an opposing creature. If your opponent then untaps and deals with your Garruk, you have still managed to impact the board. Don’t get me wrong, it still sucks for you. But at least your investment of 4 mana yielded some return. This is even more important at four mana, which for most decks running 23-25 lands is the “breaking point” at which you stop expecting your mana growth to match your turn number. Four mana on turn 4 is reasonable, 5 on turn 5 is less likely.

 

It’s a fundamental truth that the power of your spells increases with the mana cost, at least when it comes to tournament-quality cards. When building your decks, take that into account. Figure out what turns are your key turns, and by what turn you can expect to have “critical mass” of mana. Then make sure that the things you are doing with that mana are the most powerful things you CAN do for the deck you are building. Don’t put yourself in a position to get blown out by a commonly-played removal spell that wrecks your whole strategy if there are better options.

 

Lesson Two: Don’t be a slave to your theme

For perhaps the first time since the Lorwyn block, we have a Standard environment in which more than one tribal deck is viable. Both Spirits and Zombies have placed highly at professional-level events, with Zombies going undefeated through a Grand Prix. Human’s has been a perpetually strong archetype since Innistrad came out. It’s only a matter of time before Werewolves becomes a deck, and Vampires are pretty strong in an unexpecting meta.

 

There’s an inherent trap in building a deck around a tribe, a theme or a mechanic: including cards just because they fit the theme, or excluding cards because they don’t. Almost without fail, that’s wrong. Delver of Secrets is not a Spirit, nor does it transform into one. How many Spirit decks are NOT playing four of them? Fume Spitter and Phyrexian Obliterator aren’t Zombies either, but they are both close to ubiquitous in the Zombie deck.

 

When building a deck to be competitive, goal number 1 should ALWAYS be to include the best cards that do what your deck wants to do. If you start off with the idea that “I want to abuse the fact that most Spirits have flying, so making them big and giving them hexproof seems good,” then you want to figure out first of all how many of your cards are going to be dedicated to that goal. Thirty-seven spirits and 23 land will win you precisely zero events. Cards like Lingering Souls and Midnight Haunting are very powerful, and they make Spirits. Drogskul Captain buffs them. Great, we have a start. Lantern Spirit is hard to kill anyway, but for one less mana I can copy my Captain AND buff it at the same time. Phantasmal Image dies when it is targeted BUT…it’s hexproof now. Awesome, we have a base. This is where most people fall into the trap. It’s really easy to throw in things like Lantern Spirit to dodge sweepers, Niblis of the Breath to tap down Titans, Battleground Geist to give your dudes even more of a boost. It’s also probably not as good as adding Snapcaster Mage, Delver of Secrets and Mana Leak. “Spirits” is just a name for the deck, don’t let it lure you down the path of tribal troubles.

 

There are no prizes for keeping your deck on theme. There are, however, prizes for playing good cards. If you can do both, fabulous! Ask yourself two key questions: Why am I playing this card? Is there another one that does a similar thing? If your answer to the first starts with “because it fits the theme” and the second answer is “yes, and it costs less” or “yes, and it does it better” then chances are you should change it. This isn’t a hard and fast rule, but it’s a great starting point. This is a hard habit to break but once you do, you’ll notice a major jump in the quality of your decks.

 

Lesson Three: Nine out of ten decks built by the best SUCK.

That’s a direct quote from Patrick Chapin in the song “Brewmaster’s Delight.” Live by it. If you ask Mike Flores, he’ll tell you it’s more like 95 out of 100. For us mortals, we can expect that number to be in the 99th percentile. That deck you thought of with the Necrotic Ooze/Grimgrin/Bloodline Keeper combo? The professional brewers all thought of it too. There’s a reason they are making money on the Pro Tour and we’re aspiring to win a PTQ: they’re better at this than we are. They find the combos faster and they test them religiously. The thing that makes them better is that they know when to let an idea go.

 

You see, they built the same deck you did. They included all the same cards, and probably other ones you haven’t considered. They probably built a better mana base. When it didn’t win consistently, they discarded it. That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t try, far from it. As good as these players are, they are fallible human beings. The key here lies in recognizing when a deck idea just isn’t good enough, and subsequently in putting it down and walking away.

 

I firmly believe that, for regular players like you and me, any idea is worth testing. If after a few rounds of tweaking you’re STILL losing, it’s time to let it go. You found one of the 99 bad ideas that are hiding the good one. This isn’t a failure! It’s a learning experience. Whatever you do, don’t tear up your notes and never think of it again. A deck that is two turns too slow right now might be three turns faster when a new set comes out or when rotation happens. It’s just not the right time for your idea. If you aspire to be better at deckbuilding, this is very hard to do. Your deck is your baby, this is your idea and you don’t want to let it go. I understand. I’ve been there so, so many times. It was the hardest thing I had to learn and I still struggle with it. The thing is, your time can better be spent elsewhere. MOVE ALONG.

 

This also applies to card choice within a deck. Very often you will come up with an idea based on a couple of cards and the idea will work. But one of the cards that initially led you down this path just isn’t pulling its weight. No matter how much you love the card in a vacuum, you have to cut it. Magic, like nature, abhors a vacuum and you can’t make card choices based on how you wish they played out. If you draw a card on turn 3, turn 9 and turn 12 and ALWAYS wish it was something else…it should be something else.

 

Lesson Four: Never play a bad something else

Every now and then a brewer hits upon an idea that is similar to a deck being played at what the cool kids call “tier 1” level. Rather than take this as a good sign, the nascent brewer will often fight tooth and nail to keep his version intact simply because it is his. Alas, it is very rarely as good. If you find yourself building a green/white ramp deck that aims to get to 7 mana and then cast Chancellor of the Tangle or Vorinclex, you’re guilty of this. You’re doing the same thing early on as a Wolf Run deck, but your end game is nowhere near as powerful.

 

It’s a truism, but good ideas are successful because they are good. Sometimes there is a good reason to deviate from a tournament-winning decklist: the metagame has evolved, or testing shows the changes actually improve the deck. Wolf Run White is probably a better deck than the straight green-red version, for example. But if you’re on the ramp plan I mentioned above, then you’re just playing a bad version of something else.

 

Self-assessment is not an easy thing. Self-censure even less so. Nobody ever said this would be easy either. If it was people like Chapin wouldn’t be paid to write articles on their decks, because everyone could do it. Recognising that your idea is the watered-down Pepsi and the GP-winning deck is the canned Dr. Pepper is the first step to figuring out WHY your deck isn’t good enough. Once you know the why, fixing the problem gets a lot easier.

Final Lesson: LISTEN.

Certain elements of the Magic community have little to no respect for amateur brewers. If you’re a brewer you may have wondered why that is. It’s because by and large, we are the most stubborn, hard-headed bunch of ingrates that ever added mana to their pool. We’ll come up with an idea, we’ll send it far and wide and put it on our blog and beg people we respect to take a look at it…then we ignore everything they tell us. As my good friend and podcast host Chewie would say…HEY DUMMY.

 

Why did you send your list to me, to Smitty, to Jack, to anyone? Were you hoping for endorsement, or advice? If it’s the former, you’re not likely to get that. Anybody who enjoys building decks is going to have feedback to offer on your list, and if they don’t it’s likely because it’s just too bad for them to bother with. Don’t take this as an insult or an affront to your creative genius. Take it the way it is intended: as a potential lesson. You might already have tried the cards being suggested and found that they don’t work, but bear in mind that any advice you get is likely being provided in a vacuum. If you haven’t tried the suggestions, why are you dismissing them? Even if the person offering the advice is not a player you particularly respect, that doesn’t mean they can’t have a good idea.

 

All feedback is valuable, even that feedback you get and do not action. In fact some would say that type of feedback is MORE valuable because it can provide a sort of “save point” you can return to if your choice of paths does not work out. When I was playing GB Birthing Pod I steadfastly ignored any and all suggestions to play Strangleroot Geist because it wasn’t my idea, I didn’t think it would be good and I couldn’t see a reason to try it. Then I tried it, and it WAS good. Really good. I still don’t think it’s a four-of like some people were saying, but it definitely has a place in the deck. The only reason I didn’t know that before was a stubborn refusal to just…LISTEN.

 

 

Although nothing in this article will guarantee you success at any tournament, it will at least remove one obstacle from the road to success: deck construction. You will never catch me suggesting that you should blindly take someone else’s exact 75 to a tournament, but before you can run you have to learn to walk. Play other people’s decks, learn what makes them good and what weaknesses they have, THEN make them your own.

UPDATED: GP Vancouver Raffle

MAJOR UPDATE! Scroll down to the prize list to see the INCREDIBLE new prizes on offer!

For those who don’t know, I am trying to get to GP Vancouver in June. Not to play necessarily, but to judge (if approved). When I got certified as a judge it was mainly to allow me to give back to the community in another way. I can’t travel to overseas GPs so it’s Canada or nothing for me.

As Vancouver is just about as far away from Mount Pearl as it is physically possible to get while remaining in Canada, I need some help. Hopefully you, the MtG community and my friends, can provide that help. Any amount helps, as the target is a large one: $1,000 by the end of May. Can you help? If you want to help me help the community, donations can be sent via PayPal to chris.lansdell@nl.rogers.com . Every $5 you donate gets you 5 entries to the raffle. Donate as little or as much as you can. In the event that more is raised than I need to get me to Vancouver, or that I do not raise enough to get me there, the excess will be contributed to Gamers Helping Gamers, the charity being set up by Jon Finkel and his friends.

Thanks in advance, everyone.

P.S. If you can also donate prizes, email me.

Courtesy of @dayn98, an Unlimited Mox Emerald!!!
Courtesy of Luis “Bardiche” Acosta aka @auranalchemist , a foil Sorin, Lord of Innistrad!!
Courtesy of Jonathan Medina and the fine folk at Legit MtG, a playset of promo Gravecrawlers!!
Courtesy of Amanda Stevens (@sagenosis), a playset of Game Day Promo Strangleroot Geists!
Judge foil Doubling Season
Judge foil Goblin Welder
Courtesy of Jay Boosh, a large selection of foil basic lands
Courtesy of Justin Richardson, a playset of altered Squadron Hawks
Courtesy of Christine Sprankle aka Elspeth, a signed Elspeth Tirel
Courtesy of Don “The Behoover” Wiggins of Don’s Magic and Sundry, a pair of French Renaissance boosters
Courtesy of Limited Gaming, a pair of Planechase Zombie Empire Decks!
Courtesy of Jack LaCroix, a sweet playmat!
Courtesy of Hairy Tarantula in Toronto, a sealed Premium Deck Series: Graveborn!
Courtesy of Derfington, an altered card to be determined!
Courtesy of Andy from CommanderCast, a Savra EDH deck. The WHOLE DECK. There are some pricy cards in this one folks!
Courtesy of Ertai’s Lament, an Innistrad Intro Pack and a draft set of Dark Ascension!
Courtesy of Dave Astels, a framed and signed print of Ashenmoor Gouger by Matt Cavotta!

The Cream Always Rises To The Top (An Apology)

I’m a fucking hypocrite.

After the extended Twitter drama of the last few days (some would say it’s non-stop drama) I started writing a long, emotional entry about how I was misinterpreted and misquoted and how shitstorms seem to always arise around me even though I didn’t do anything wrong. I’m not here to confirm or deny that, though I will say it was written in a very bad state at the end of a very bad four-day stretch and should be taken with a very large pinch of salt.

A very good friend of mine recently told me that writing is catharsis, and I do believe she’s right. Just putting the Twitter events down on digital paper helped me realise that although my points may have been valid, I was coming from a severely unstable and incorrect base. As a result I got into arguments with people I respect and people I consider friends, and I feel terrible about that.

Let me bring you up to speed, in case you missed some or all of the discussion. The details are irrelevant at this point, but suffice it to say that the age-old argument of brewers vs. netdeckers came up again. Having listened to the latest Eh Team (a rare miss in my mind) in which the hosts and guest stated categorically that a certain card was bad, I felt the (perhaps irrational) need to defend said card. At no point was my name mentioned as a defender of the card, but something that has always rankled with me is people thinking that because they don’t like a card, it’s instantly bad. I pointed out the virtues of the card in something of a passive-aggressive way, and then the debate started.

Jay Boosh is a friend of mine, I hope. He has a heart of gold and will do anything he can to help a friend…including giving them a much-needed smack in the chops when they are being pig-headed. His manner may be a little more gruff than some appreciate, but once you know what’s under it you look past that. One thing he is not, however, is willing to play any old card just on the say-so of any old player. And he’s far from alone there. A whole swath of players like to play decks that are recommended by players they trust and respect and that suit their play style. If you’re a brewer but you’re not on their list, they likely don’t want to try your idea. It hasn’t got enough credibility behind it. The cream will always rise to the top, with decks as well as with dairy products, and these decks have done so.

As a brewer, I spend a lot of time (now, though I never used to) testing my ideas. One of the things I am trying to do is filter them so that I only start talking them up once I know they are good. I’m not there yet though. The next step for me, as Smitty so often said was the case for him on The Eh Team, is to get people to play my decks. Also like Smitty, I get frustrated when people write the idea off simply because it came from me…then turn around weeks later and play the same deck because a pro recommended it, all the while talking about how great the deck and its builder are. And sometimes, that frustration escapes.

Over the past few weeks I’ve been lucky enough to talk to some true masters of the craft and have learned a great deal from them. That started with Mike Flores on episode 11 of Horde of Notions, and continued with Jon Finkel (episode 25) and Patrick Chapin (episode 27). You’d be hard-pressed to find three better deckbuilders when in their primes. They taught me a lot about their process and what goes in to every deck they build. You know what though? I’d heard much of it before.

People like Jay, Nina, even Smitty had all told me a lot of the things that the masters were telling me. I ignored it…because they didn’t have the credibility or track record to make me want to listen to them. This realisation is especially jarring to me right now because although I consider Jay and Nina to be friends (and Nina has often had my back in discussions such as these, even if she does vastly overrate my skill), I flat-out look up to Smitty almost as much as I do the Chapins and Flores of the world. I am now where he was 8 months ago, and I’ve been following his path pretty much since I got back into the game. How I managed to ignore him is still a mystery to me. If I’m going to ignore advice from others on the basis of their reputation, who the hell am I to expect them to do things differently?

Not to say my opinion on certain cards has changed. I believe people tend to rate cards in a vacuum or in a given meta, then not revise that rating as things change. That’s a trap. Magic isn’t played in a vacuum, and the quality of a card can and will change as the metagame changes. The list of cards from Scars block alone that are significantly better now then when they came out is rather long: Elspeth, Plague Stinger, Viridian Emissary, the Crusaders, Hero of Bladehold, Lashwrithe, Gut Shot, Vapor Snag, Volt Charge…these are just off the top of my head. There are several that are worse, too. To categorically say a card is bad, or “not a real card” when in fact it is winning events and showing well in others is just inaccurate. But it is patently unfair and hypocritical of me to get angry that people won’t put any trust in my ideas and opinions and won’t respect what I saw when I wasn’t willing to do the same for them.

Jay, Nina, Jeph and anyone else I fought with over this: I’m sorry I got overheated and carried away. Opinions at the end of the day are just that, and you deserve more respect from me than you got.

Brewers: Stop fighting everyone who says no to you. The way to get people to trust your decks is to win with them. If you can’t then ask yourself why. Is it because you’re a bad player, or because the deck itself is bad? Is it both? If the former, you have a tough road ahead. If the latter, scrap it and start again. Once you start winning, people will start trying it. Don’t worry what one or two people think just because they have the loudest opinion. In the end, the truth always rises. Just like the cream.