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In Development – Rapid Idea Testing: a Red Teaming Update

 

The first few weeks of a new Standard environment bless us with the paradox of choice.

I’m using “bless” a little facetiously, since the idea behind the paradox of choice is that having a wealth of options tends to lead to our making poor decisions. You may be experiencing this in one way or another yourself as you look at the Rise spoiler and try to decide how the new cards fit into existing archetypes and whether or not any of them can generate new archetypes.

In this position, we have a few options. We can just run something, we can stare at our options and go into brain lock until someone else makes a worthwhile deck, or we can put some of our ideas together and test them.

Putting together the Red Team

Last year I wrote about Red Teaming, which I described like so:

In our terms, the “Red Team” phase is the point where we actually run our decks up against our best guess at some of the key opposing archetypes and see if they survive. This is a playtesting phase, but it is distinct from the kind of playtesting we do once we have a known deck and are planning for a specific tournament. We’re neither fine-tuning the deck nor improving our play skill with the deck. Instead, we’re still figuring out if it even works or not.

At the same time, we learn more about the true nature of the environment.

Although this definition is still true, I’ve recently updated the specifics of how I do my Red Teaming. The first part, however, remains the same. We need some deck lists.

This early in a format, we’re going to collect deck lists to form our Red Team from just a few places. We can start with suggested deck lists from columns like this one, and then add in the first few deck lists from early Magic League events, which get in ahead of the card availability curve. Finally, we’re going to find that we have to take a couple of current deck lists and just update them in ways that “make sense.”

In collecting deck lists to form your Red Team, I recommend that you avoid the obvious temptation to tinker. You may be wrong, or you may be dead on and know the exact update that the top-performing Magic League Jund deck needs so it can really shine, but the point here is that we want to rapidly evaluate our deck concepts against the expected environment. That environment is made of the decks people outside your group are going to play, and that’s best reflected in the builds that don’t have your own personal tweaks.

My current Red Team includes a few Jund decks, Allies, mono-red, Polymorph, Everflowing Control, Turbofog, and a Vengevine Naya build. I think the four core pillars of testing right now are Allies, Jund, Everflowing Control, and Polymorph. Jund is the default opposing deck – and, of course, I collected three deck lists because “Jund is not just Jund” and approaches can and will differ within that color combination. Everflowing Control is our default full-on control opponent, and gives us the chance to face down Gideon Jura. Allies is an excellent “you must be this fast to ride this ride” test, as it is perhaps the most explosive aggro deck around. Finally, Polymorph must be our “combo” opponent of choice, both because it can crush some opposing archetypes and because many people will play it purely due to the lure of actually seeing Emrakul hit the battlefield in a Constructed game.

Rather than clutter up the main column, I’ve put the Red Team lists that were used for today’s column over here.

Take a moment to review those lists, then come back here and check them out in action below.

Revised Red Teaming

As I mentioned above, I’ve altered the way I do my Red Teaming. Previously, I would put together nominal “core” lists, and then rapidly test a series of “game ones” against the main decks of the various members of my Red Team. As I’ve discovered, however, this tends to lead to a certain amount of stalling on my part.

I really have been experiencing the paradox of choice this week. There are a plethora of potential designs, multiplied across a number of possibly viable options for each design. I found that I was sitting there, staring at the Rise spoiler and vacillating about which cards could potential go into a nominal “core” deck for testing.

This runs counter to the whole idea behind Red Teaming – fast testing, fast results.

When your method no longer serves your goals, it’s time to change. Sitting around in brain lock wasn’t helping me figure out what I wanted to play – and it wasn’t even letting me have the fun of doing the “play’ part of playtesting! Heck, I wasn’t even designing new decks.

The revised method fixes this.

This time around, rather than try to make a conceptual core deck and test that, I decided to just knock together “sideboarded” sixty-card decks for each specific matchup in the Red Team, and then test that focused build against the sideboarded version of the Red Team deck. In other words, if I want to test the Jund matchup, I will build a version of my deck that’s meant to beat Jund, and then run it against a Jund deck that’s sideboarded against my deck.

This approach removed my brain lock and let me freely play with new cards and ideas. It also has the significant advantage of plugging directly into the right way to build a deck and sideboard. It’s always handy when your “rough draft” rapid test phase plugs neatly into your final build approach.

Rapid Testing of Jund

By way of further illustrating what I mean, I’m going to walk through the Red Teaming experience with a set of Jund concepts that I was evaluating this weekend. As I discussed two weeks ago, I’ve seen definite room for many Rise cards in Jund decks. For this test run, I was interested in answering several questions, including:

Can I combine Realms Uncharted and Grim Discovery effectively in a Jund frame?

Is Sarkhan the Mad still as good as he seemed two weeks ago?

Is Consume the Meek good?

Is Consuming Vapors good?

I began this rapid testing process with the Jund “mirror.” After all, it’s still going to be a good deck, and a number of Jund decks placed well in early post-Rise Magic League events. Here’s the core deck I started with:

Jund versus Jund, first take (not recommended)

[deck]4 Putrid Leech
4 Sprouting Thrinax
4 Bloodbraid Elf
3 Broodmate Dragon
4 Lightning Bolt
4 Grim Discovery
4 Realms Uncharted
4 Maelstrom Pulse
2 Jund Charm
2 Sarkhan the Mad
4 Savage Lands
4 Raging Ravine
2 Lavaclaw Reaches
4 Verdant Catacombs
1 Dragonskull Summit
1 Rootbound Crag
1 Oran-Rief, the Vastwood
3 Swamp
2 Mountain
3 Forest[/deck]

Early testing against sideboarded Jund opponents made it completely clear that [card]Realms Uncharted[/card] and [card]Grim Discovery[/card] are no match for opposing [card]Blightning[/card]s and [card]Goblin Ruinblaster[/card]s. Conceptually the two approaches have card advantage parity, but in practice, the options and recovery offered by Realms and Discovery are far too slow to let this deck succeed against a Jund opponent.

On the other hand, when the opposing Jund deck does not crush our mana base, [card]Sarkhan the Mad[/card] dominates. Being able to trade in fractional portions of a Thrinax for 5/5 dragons is incredible”¦and an incredible reload during the long game. Although I think it’s fair to say that crazy uncle Sark is not a great card, he is a good card with a role to play in this mirror.

So, what if we pull one copy each of Realms and [card]Grim Discovery[/card], and both copies of [card]Jund Charm[/card] (I honestly no longer recall why it seemed like a good idea to have [card]Jund Charm[/card] in there), replacing them with four copies of Ruinblaster?

Jund versus Jund, second take (not recommended)

[deck]4 Putrid Leech
4 Sprouting Thrinax
4 Goblin Ruinblaster
4 Bloodbraid Elf
3 Broodmate Dragon
4 Lightning Bolt
3 Grim Discovery
3 Realms Uncharted
4 Maelstrom Pulse
2 Sarkhan the Mad
4 Savage Lands
4 Raging Ravine
2 Lavaclaw Reaches
4 Verdant Catacombs
1 Dragonskull Summit
1 Rootbound Crag
1 Oran-Rief, the Vastwood
3 Swamp
2 Mountain
3 Forest[/deck]

Well, it turns out this still isn’t good enough. Although the decks now have Ruinblaster parity, Realms Uncharted remains nothing more than a way to reload your hand against opposing [card]Blightning[/card]s. With nothing else in the deck that keys off of the power of Realms Uncharted, we’re left with an engine that is far too slow to matter. Realms is amazing when it powers up your Knights and your landfall triggers, but as a [card]Gifts Ungiven[/card] analog”¦well, I think even [card]Gifts Ungiven[/card] might not work well in the Jund mirror.

Okay, so Realms is out, and we might need to pare back those copies of Grim Discovery to make room for a return to Blightning and some other key cards. This might be a pretty exciting opportunity – we can swap out the excess cards and add in more removal, right?

Well, not so much. This is one of the dangers of iterative testing – you tweak, you move cards out and in, and eventually part of your design depends on elements that no longer exist. This happens in coding all the time (so our software developers tell me) – you end up with accidental contingencies that you are not aware of. In this case we have the problem of having removed our mana fixing (Realms Uncharted) while adding in no replacement. That clearly doesn’t work.

Here’s the “final” Jund versus Jund build that accounts for this issue:

Jund versus Jund, third take (not recommended)

Having rapidly run our Jund idea through the Jund wringer, we’ve cut out Realms Uncharted and added in Growth Spasm. Now it’s time to move on to our next matchup, Allies.

For the Allies match, I started with this focused build:

Jund versus Allies, first take (not recommended)

I was really wondering if Consume the Meek would prove as good as I expected here, and it certainly did. Much of an Allies build makes it in under the “meekness limit,” meaning if you can hold out for the first few turns, you can ramp into Consume and wipe most or all of their board – on their turn, no less.

This phase of the Red Teaming process gave me a data point to file for later. Eldrazi Spawn tokens are colorless. As such, Growth Spasm gives you a chump blocker that works even if the Ally deck casts Kabira Evangel. This is actually tremendously powerful in letting you survive through early turns, as Evangel is the single scariest card in the deck. Similarly, it means you can block a creature that has received protection courtesy of Sejiri Steppe. Spasm also ramps you from three to five, meaning it turns on your Consumes.

Also notice that I cut the Leeches in the Ally-focused build, as Leech is mainly there to keep slower decks honest. Sure, it can block an Ally or two, but it’s not especially great in that role.

This phase went relatively quickly, as it confirmed what I’d suspected – Consume the Meek is awesome here. The main other data point of interest was that Growth Spasm was also awesome, and actually better than similar options (such as Borderland Ranger) would be in the same slot.

Maybe I’ll start calling Growth Spasm “Kodama’s Ranger.”

With the Ally phase done, I moved on to Polymorph.

Polymorph is an interesting and potentially quite ugly matchup. If the opponent is Polymorphing into Emrakul, well, there are ways to deal with that. On the other hand, it’s hard to make a legitimate Jund deck that is not utterly cold to an Iona naming “black.” I had some ideas, and they were embodied in this list:

Jund versus Polymorph, first take (not recommended)

This deck combines three major concepts. First, the octet of Instant removal spells should help knock out Polymorph targets, blockading the spell. Second, Thought Hemorrhage will try to cut out Polymorph or its targets entirely, shutting down that aspect of the deck. Finally, Consuming Vapors is there for Polymorph decks that go for Emrakul or any other non-Iona creature. Iona, of course, will name black, blanking Vapors.

Long story short, this approach did not work. It’s too slow. If you refer to some of the Jund lists over in the Red Team, you’ll see Duress in the sideboard, and that’s probably the correct choice. That lead to this revision:

Jund versus Polymorph, second take (not recommended)

The early disruption from Duress gives this deck enough room to kill the Polymorph opponent before they can go off, sometimes. It’s still a rough matchup, and I think there must be stronger solutions that I’m just not seeing yet. However, with nothing coming immediately to mind, this necessarily falls outside of the “rapid testing” mandate that undergirds the Red Teaming process, so I left the list as it was above and moved on to Everflowing Control, with this list:

Jund versus Everflowing Control, first take (not recommended)

Let me quote from my notes here after the very first game:

Holy crap. Wall of Omens makes your Thrinaxes bad. Cutting those right now.

Indeed, with White control decks dropping Wall of Omens left and right, Thrinax pretty much ends up staring sadly at the Wall, wishing it were a relevant threat. In its place, I chose to swap in an extra Liliana and two copies of Consume the Meek, as well as adding the third Broodmate back in. If Consume seems odd, consider that Everflowing frequently wins on the back of Celestial Colonnade and Soldier tokens.

The adjusted list looked like this:

Jund versus Everflowing Control, second take (not recommended)

This list was potentially effective, but ended up feeling a little bit top-heavy and vulnerable to Spreading Seas and Tectonic Edge. With that in mind, I opted to add back in two copies of Realms Uncharted to replace the underperforming Consuming Vapors. Vapors can potentially be nice against a Baneslayer, but many of the threats from Everflowing Control are small, and others tend to be immune to Sorceries – most notably both Colonnade and Gideon Jura fall into the latter category.

Jund versus Everflowing Control, third take (not recommended)

I also learned that Gideon Jura is not particularly horrible to face in this pairing. Although the decks work differently, this is a control-on-control game, and you don’t tend to find your game plan destroyed if one of your Bloodbraids finds itself temporarily at Gideon’s mercy.

Bringing it together

I hope this was an informative window into the Red Team rapid testing process. I really like this revised version of the process, as it lets me focus on individual ideas and removes the tendency to censor ideas by trying to see them in the aggregate, whole-environment context too early. That can come later, when we take the focused builds and, by following proper sideboard design procedure, combine them into our final list.

Following Red Teaming, that combining process has left me with this tentative Jund list:

Consuming Jund

Keep in mind that this is still not a polished list – that’s not the point. However, I do know that I’ve given it an initial shakedown cruise, shedding all the genuinely bad ideas and leaving myself with a solid frame that will be honed and strengthened with future playtesting.

If you find that you’re stuck in your deckbuilding, give this revised approach to Red Teaming a try. Rapid testing breaks you out of your confusion, gives you a chance to actually play the new cards, and will teach you about the new Standard far better than any amount of sitting and staring at spoilers.

Discussion

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