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Breaking Through – Focusing on What Matters

As the internet becomes more and more critical to the Magic community as a supplier of seemingly unlimited information, there has been a sort of rift in the skill sets of Magic players. On the one hand, things like technical play, mulligan decisions, draft skills, or deck lists have all become much more refined and improved over the last handful of years. On the other hand, many departments involving individual thinking have dropped off.

Consider things like deck building, which while a crucial skill for a sub-set of Magic players, cannot be provided in such a cut and dry way as pick orders for Limited or a list for the best deck in Standard can be. Players have come to rely heavily on this sort of spoon-fed information which makes situations that require self-derived information that much more difficult. It is more difficult for a millionaire to live off of 40 dollars for a week than for someone holed up in the local shelter, and for obvious reasons. And while deck building may be the poster child for these lost arts, there are many other skills that have been dwindling from the masses as of late.

The one I would like to focus on today is simple in theory and has been tossed around for a while now as a more general statement, although we are going to go into a specific application of it: figure out what matters.

When building decks, or more commonly, sideboards, the question of how to attack specific archetypes is always introduced. To use a recent example, when you were playing Blue White control a year ago, you had to figure out how to beat Jund consistently. To get to that point though, you generally had to pack specific cards or a general game plan that would look to attack a weakness of Jund. To get to that point, you needed to figure out what exactly you needed to attack, not just what you could attack.

This is one of the biggest decision points for a deck or sideboard and yet the same flawed behavior tends to get repeated over and over. The difference of figuring out what you need to attack, and what you could be attacking can be boiled down to simply figuring out what matters. This can be a difficult concept to explain in a vague sense, so we will continue to utilize recent examples that should resonate a little better.

Faeries

Let us venture back to one of the most menacing decks in recent history: Faeries. Faeries was often heralded as having no real weakness as, despite many attempts, until the very end of its reign, no deck could ever really muster up enough of an offense against it while also staying competitive with the rest of the format. Still, people tried to attack in a variety of ways, and they did, but not in a meaningful way.

Combo decks, for example, never really fought Faeries in a way that was advantageous for them, which always kept them in check. Many would throw Volcanic Fallout in their deck and call it a day, and yes, while that is attacking Faeries, it is not doing do in a way that matters. If you are a combo deck, the thing that hurts you from a Fae standpoint is the counterspells and the hand disruption. While the little fliers are certainly annoying, dealing with them does not advance your position enough to be worth the slots in your deck or the dilution of the combo you are trying to establish. Combo decks turned to the most popular way to fight Faeries, but for that particular match up, it was mostly irrelevant.

Every deck has a different way to fight another deck. Let’s fast forward a bit to Jund’s dominance. While Jund was in its early stages, control decks struggled to come up with a way to fight them. What mattered in that matchup were basically all of Jund’s spells. Blightning, Bloodbraid Elf, Sprouting Thrinax; they all posed problems for the control player and there was no single way to hate on all of them at once. Most players would jam 4 Celestial Purge into their sideboards and cross their fingers, but it was never enough. A control player could just not handle Jund. That is until control players found out what really mattered: Jund’s mana. Once Spreading Seas was adopted as a universal 4-of, alongside Tectonic Edge, Jund’s spells were so much more difficult to cast that control players were able to steal wins left and right. They still tended to keep some number of Purges in the board, but they were to take out the ones that got through and were not trying to win the matchup by themselves.

Compare this strategy to the Faeries versus Jund match up in Extended. While Jund has taken on multiple ways to attack Faeries, like Volcanic Fallout or Great Sable Stag, most of them are just supportive of the overall strategy of Jund and therefore it is difficult for them to attack Faeries in a “Wrong” way. Something like Chameleon Colossus is a little extreme and likely bad against them as it is so much weaker to countermagic than something like Thrun, but for the most part, Jund players know what they are doing in that match up. Faeries is why we are focusing on this dynamic though.

Previously we mentioned that control players utilized Spreading Seas along with Tectonic Edge to gain a mana advantage over the Jund player. Faeries does not employ this tactic though and for an important reason. While control players were just looking to take advantage of the weaker Jund mana base while they set up a few planeswalkers, Faeries knows that a 2 mana enchantment does not fit into their curve and or wider game plan. Faeries instead plays toward the late game where they tend to be a little weaker than Jund simply because of the inevitably of something like Fallout, Great Sable Stag, or Thrun. Things like Wall of Tanglecord are used to buy them time, and often they look to finish the game, not with a bunch of flying dorks, but with a Wurmcoil Engine or two. Wurmcoil Engine is able to play around most of Jund’s removal spells and completely dodges the hate that Jund looks to throw at Faeries after board.

Attacking Jund’s mana base is certainly a direction that Faeries can go, but they understand what matters and that is stepping above the sideboard plan of Jund. If they just attacked Jund’s mana, they would inevitably find themselves lacking when it came to an endgame as Jund is posed to deal with all of the traditional Faeries threats. They cannot truly capitalize on the time they have bought themselves without something like a Wurmcoil Engine in their deck. Unfortunately, Jund and Fae have both not been the most popular decks as of recently, so we do not get to see this dynamic more, but it is an interesting one none the less.

The issue that has arisen over time as players rely more and more on outsourced deck lists and sideboard technology while they improve their technical play is that players have forgotten how to properly evaluate what matters in any given matchup. Instead of looking at technology from the standpoint of their own deck, they look at it as a general sort of thing. The following system of thinking is not applicable to every deck and yet most players think it is.

Volcanic Fallout is good against Faeries.
I am playing a deck that can cast Volcanic Fallout.
I need to improve my Faeries match up.
I should add Volcanic Fallout to my deck.

While there is a decent chance that Volcanic Fallout will improve you Faeries matchup, that thought is far from a blanket statement. There are decks where the creatures of Faeries are not what actually matter and those decks should figure out what does matter to them and look to attack that specific angle.

Look at CawBlade in Standard right now. So many decks continuously lose to it and they all focus on one thing: the Swords. The Swords are most definitely an integral part of their strategy, but they are not always the card that matters most in the matchup. If you are just slotting in a single Acidic Slime or something to grab with Fauna Shaman as your anti-Sword tech, than so be it, but when you begin adding 4 or 5 cards to your sideboard to deal with artifacts, when in reality let’s say Gideon is the real threat, you are falling prey to the perceived knowledge that Sword is public enemy number 1. Just because Sword is the best card in their deck does not mean Sword is the card you personally need to fear the most.

Back when 5-Color control was battling Faeries a lot, Esper Charm was a frequent player in the matchup. For months players looked to take out the opposing Bitterblossom immediately with their Charm and no one ever thought twice about it. Eventually, it became public knowledge that a group which I believed included Patrick Chapin, stopped slinging an Esper Charm at Bitterblossom. They concluded that while Bitterblossom would occasionally be annoying, more often than not, with Volcanic Fallout and Cloudthresher in their deck, it was actually a liability. So, instead, they began to use Esper Charms to draw, ensuring they had a steady stream of cards to work with. They realized that when it came to Esper Charm, the card advantage was more important than dealing with the enchantment as they already had plenty of resources dedicated toward doing that.

This is the type of thinking that needs to see a resurgence. Cards are slowly becoming evaluated more and more in a sort of vacuum where they only see the target and not the weapon firing it. An anti-tank missile is probably going to be the best thing to beat a tank with in war, but if all you have is a rifle, that strategy is probably flawed. Every interaction needs to be thought of within the context that it is occurring.

Forget the idea of just thinking of a good card against a good matchup and giving it a shot. What does that card do for your deck specifically? How does the match up tend to play itself out? What resources matter the most? What cards from the opponent matter the most? I understand this method is more time consuming than simply adopting the common knowledge, especially when you consider that sometimes your results will yield some card that is currently not seeing play and you have to go in search of it the effect you want, but it also comes with great reward when executed properly.

Improving our technical play is awesome and the Magic community has grown to be better on average than they were years ago, but we cannot continue to sacrifice other skills that have proven equally vital the game. Stop taking information for granted and begin to formulate your own and you will see an improvement in your game. Thanks for reading!

Conley Woods

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