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Arena Diaries #6 – Man with a Plan

I have a plan, for once.

It’s a brand new format and I know one thing about those, it’s time to play aggro. I even know why because I’ve read and watched just enough to know that aggro decks punish people testing new things.

It’s not very fun when you say it aloud, is it?

Doesn’t matter, I’m not playing anonymous opponents on Arena to make sure they have a great experience, that’s what FNM is for. There’s a reason paper Magic feels that little bit more enjoyable.

I digress. Mono-Red, Rakdos Sacrfice and Mono-Green all feel like good options. I have no experience with Mono-Green so I stick with the other two.

With the season change, I’m back down to Gold 2, so a lot of battling to do if I’m to make it to Mythic again. I failed in June. I really don’t want to fail again in July. Goals are important, I remind myself. In three weeks I may need to remind myself it’s ok not to achieve them too.

Rakdos feels familiar and powerful immediately. Players are working out what to do and I make it to Gold 1 without losing too many matches. All told it takes just over an hour.

That’s a bit too slow when Mono-Red is available, so I give that a shot. It comes roaring out of the gates and crushes opponents with ease, until I face a few Mono-Green decks. Despite that, the path to Platinum is largely smooth.

Standard Mono-Red Aggro Deck List - Frank Karsten

I’d forgotten that Platinum is where things get hard. Your rank increases slower. Your losses feel more impactful. The players are a high standard too. This is the domain of those who just fell from Mythic.

I don’t do horribly, but progress slows. More players here are employing the same strategy I am, jamming fast decks in best-of-one. We’ve all read the articles, seen the videos. We’re a community with the same goal, all in opposition.

Solidarity to my fellow grinders on the Mythic trail, but I want you to lose – to me, primarily.

It’s time to change things up a little. I saw Bant Ramp do well at the CFB Pro Showdown and it looked quite fun too. It may be slower, but jumping into best-of-three and winning with a deck that rewards careful play would feel good.

Bant Ramp by Diamondback

The deck plays almost every single top card in the format, so it feels incredibly powerful. Growth Spiral into Uro into Teferi or Nissa is already great, add Scavenging Ooze and Teferi, Master of Time – with some versions even running Jolrael and Ugin for extra value – and this is just a total powerhouse.

It does fold to fast aggro starts, taking a longer time to set up than the Bant Flash decks that had been popular before the format change, and it can lose out to decks that just go over the top of it such as Temur Elementals, but mostly you hit the late game and it’s very hard to lose.

Unfortunately despite knowing this, and feeling like I’m getting better at understanding the game enough to consider those intricacies, I’m still losing with it.

I think I know why; it’s my mulligan decisions.

Mulligans are hard, one of the hardest things to figure out in Magic. The loss of a card is huge when resources are being played out against an opponent. They have more game pieces than you do from the first turn.

Balancing risky keeps against losing too much card advantage is something I really struggle with. If you think about it, there are two major factors outside the actual gameplay that hugely impact your results: Sideboarding and Mulligans.

Sideboarding is complicated, but you can take a guide from a better player or make educated guesses that improve over time. You can prep extremely well. Now I constantly play it by ear and I maybe shouldn’t, but I never feel as though sideboarding is what’s holding me back. Mulligans are a different matter entirely.

I learned to mulligan effectively with one deck – Burn in Modern. That’s it. I can make decent decisions with a linear deck too, such as Infect. Once things get more complicated than that, I have no clue.

Burn is simple because the plan is so redundant. You don’t want many lands and you need to kill the opponent extremely fast. Mono-Red in standard is a much more difficult deck to pilot, it goes up to a 6-drop. You never pay full price for it, but even then, there’s a 4-drop in Torbran as the effective curve topper. That makes lands hard to resist.

That’s not even considering the slow setup of a deck like Bant Ramp. You’re looking to balance big threats with actually being able to cast them. You want four to five lands, a threat or two and three to four ramp cards. I’m no Frank Karsten but that’s more than seven cards.

Suddenly it’s getting complex. There’s no Growth Spiral or Uro in the opener, but three lands and a Teferi. He draws a card. Is that a keep? How many Teferis are in the deck?

You’ve got your decklist open in Arena and a browser tab searching for a hypergeometric calculator to see how likely it is you draw Ugin on curve.

I try something fun in Pawblade, overwhelmed by Bant and mathematics. I’m streaming some of this gameplay too, so just trying to relax and enjoy it now, talk to chat, be entertaining if not good. I keep a hand because it has lands and spells and I get a chat message that absolutely nails the simple fact I’ve been missing.

Standard Paw Blade Deck List - Huey Jensen

The hand has no plan, they say. I literally said aloud what I wanted to achieve, and the hand I kept doesn’t do that at all – so why keep it?

It’s revelatory. Galaxy brain stuff to my simple mind. I don’t need to worry about whether I’ll draw the right cards in 4 turns, I just need to look at the hand I have and ask ‘is this going to win me the game, or at least set me up for victory?’

It’s a small thing to learn, certainly, but it feels huge to me. A hand with a plan, I’ll repeat that to myself before games from now on.

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