Breaking Through – Unpredictability and Halfway Technology


One of the big misconceptions about my take on constructed Magic is that going rogue implies designing an entirely new deck. It’s making one that no one has seen or has prepared for. Now while this holds true in more cases than not, deck design does not need to be so polarized. It is nice when an entirely new deck can come from nothing, and it is safe to run old standbys like Zoo or Dredge, but there is plenty of wiggle room in the middle too!

Tinkering with existing decks and archetypes is actually a very key skill that can be used as a transition tool for those players looking to get into deck building. Learning the ins and outs of a current deck well enough to put your own spin on it teaches many of the same skills that deck building from scratch does, except it does so in a safer manner. Even if some mistakes are made, the power of the original deck can still shine through and carry the load. This does come with a bit of a warning though; Do not make the mistake of altering a list without first testing it.

Magic players are cocky and competitive by nature. Because of this, the first instinct of a player when he sees a new deck is to begin poking and prodding at it. Before the player has ever played a game, 10-15 cards have been changed from the original 75. Plenty of writers have stressed this point in the past but it continues to be a problem. Understand what you are working with before you decide to change it! You may think you understand the decklist in front of you, but the only way to be sure is to play it. There are reasons the original builder did not run the cards you are so anxious to add. Yes, one of those reasons could be that they did not think of it, but unless you know that for a fact, it is best to confirm with testing.

One of the big ways to accomplish this form of deck building is to look into the recent past for decks that have lost favor. Often at the beginning of a season, decks come in every shape and size as there is little in the form of an established metagame. Once the better decks rise to the top, many of those older decks fall away never to be seen again. This does not mean they were bad deck though, simply that they were not primed for that particular metagame. Because of this, the decks tend to fall into sleeper mode, awaiting to be awoken by someone. Once someone brave enough comes along, it is often foolish to resurrect the deck card for card. Instead, the pruning that we have already talked about should occur. So lets explore some examples for the current Extended.

Recently I recommended this deck to a friend for the Denver PTQ. On the surface it is just another Zoo deck, but underneath that veil, we have a metagame machine.

The sideboard may be a little off as it was shaped for the Denver metagame due to the fact that our PTQ came 3 weeks after a previous PTQ here in Denver. But let’s focus on the maindeck for right now.

The first card to jump out is obviously Mogg Fanatic. Mogg Fanatic exemplifies an issue that has been born with the Internet era in Magic and that is the dismissal of “strictly worse” cards. The definition of strictly worse has obviously been blurred, and Mogg Fanatic is looked at as the 1 drop of old, coming in 5th place behind Nacatls, Lions, Apes, and Kittens. It is commonplace to ignore him as a tool altogether anymore, instead deciding if you want a landfall 1 drop or a 2/3. Yet despite the Fanatic usually being worse, he is not always worse, and right now is one of those times where he shines. Let’s look at his impact in various matchups.

Landfall Zoo- Takes out Steppe Lynxes, Plated Geopedes
Boros- Takes out those same 2 guys plus Zektar Shrine Expedition tokens
Dredge- Removes Bridges and takes out Drowned Rusalka, Dryad Arbor, or Narcomoeba
Elves- Kills their deck essentially
Thopter Depths- Kills Bobs, premature Vampire Hexmages, and random tokens if it comes to that.
Zoo – Kills Lynx, and wins Kird Ape or Goyf fights
Bant- Takes out Hierarchs, Mindcensors, Cliques and wins Goyf wars.

The Fanatic actually pulls his weight quite well but is still being mostly ignored right now. If nothing else, adding in Fanatic gives Zoo a little extra reach when they would otherwise just be attacking. The real reach in the Zoo mirror comes from the other underplayed card- good ole Bob.

Bob is not nearly as unconventional as Mogg Fanatic is, but he still doesn’t see the play in Zoo that he has in the past. In testing, I was able to just remove all of my opponent’s threats in the mirror with Tribal Flames, Fanatics, or Paths while also trading in combat, just because I knew that a late Bob would pull me ahead. I find Bob to be one of the more enticing reasons to go 5 color in Zoo, so I definitely would not forget about that guy when you begin adding Tribal Flames next to Nacatls.

Zoo has a million different variations, and as such, that may have seemed like a cop-out, but the point is that unexplored areas lead to discoveries. Now while not every discovery will be worthy of further investigation, those that do significantly increase your chances at success. In the Internet era where nearly everyone is on the same page as far as uniform decklists, metagame analysis, and tier N labeling, anything you can do to bring something unique to the table enables an unknown path to be opened. If you run Jund up against U/W Control, aside from draw variance and mulligans, you basically know the gist of the game play and probabilities due to past testing both from yourself and others. But introduce an unknown into the equation and the entire schematic of the matchup can change. Abyssal Persecutor? Banefire? These little changes will often go unaccounted for by the opponent, leaving you a step ahead and opening the door for your opponent to make mistakes.

You understand your half of the battle because you understand the U/W control shell and the modifications you have made to your deck. Your opponent on the other hand, only understands 80 or 90% of the battle, as he understands his own deck and its functions, as well as the basic Jund game plan and cards, but not that you have been planning for a [card]Banefire[/card] victory the entire time for example. The misconception is that I advocate going rogue as the only way to garner an advantage at a tournament, but in reality, the bigger lesson is to be unpredictable.

Unpredictability creates confusion and places the user in a position where he has the upper hand. Let’s use chess as an example, as it is a nonrandom game. In chess, there are common openings and strategies that are well known among the more skillful players. If a player opened up in one of these ways, the skilled player would likely have a set response planned, reacting the same way to that common opening every single time as he has decided it superior. What if then, instead of some common opening, a player opened in some bizarre, unseen and unpredictable manner. Chess obviously has a much more limited amount of moves meaning it is possible that the skilled player has played against the unorthodox opening before, but even so, he has not played against it as much, and is less prepared with a proper response.

If we assume that the player playing in an unexpected way is also skilled enough to know the opposite players response, he clearly has an advantage. He understands his own plan of attack, and at least most of what the opponent is doing in response. Meanwhile, his opponent has little knowledge of the crazy maneuvers being played out in front of him and therefore cannot plan his own response as far in advance, meaning he was also hindered in his own plan, due to the strategy of the opponent. A window is opened for mistakes to be made.

Magic offers a different layer of unpredictability in deck building however. Once in a game, there is more often than not a series of plays that is “correct.” Because of this, there is not much room to play in an unpredictable manner and still play correctly. Play style does of course influence this a bit, and assuming you maintain the same game plan throughout the game, you can probably get away with being a little unconventional, but nothing so drastic as to where your opponent will more than likely mess up. Here however, is where deck building comes into consideration.

While there are thousands of different cards available for use in any given set, only a fraction of those cards are actually used, and most of them are used in a very linear sense. This means that if a card shows up in some deck, it typically is there to perform 1 or 2 commonly known functions. [card]Bloodbraid Elf[/card] for example, while a very versatile card, is likely only going to appear in midrange or aggro strategies as a card advantage creature. Technically there is nothing stopping it from being a combo enabler like [card]Violent Outburst[/card], but thus far, that has not been the case. If then, so few of these cards actually see play and the ones that do are typically used in a predictable manner, can we not exploit this?

By going completely rogue, you spring the element of confusion on your opponent. They will likely understand that you are rogue early in the match and therefore understand that all of their testing and preparation is useless for this matchup. Instead what they must rely on are their innate skills and on the spot decision making.

With tweaks and tech for an existing deck though, a different element comes into play; the element of surprise. This can often be even more effective than pure confusion and unknowns. In this instance, instead of advertising to your opponent that you are presenting them with an unfamiliar situation, you instead walk them along leading them into believing one thing about your deck before springing it on them that you are in fact doing something unexpected. In the case of Mogg Fanatic this may be minimal, where as Bob has a bigger impact. But let us go even more extreme. Imagine the first time Scapeshift Zoo was played against a live opponent. The opponent is likely sitting at around 10 life, with a few Steppe Lynx staring him down, but blockers in their way. It is at this point that the opponent is just trying to avoid 10 points of burn and it’s looking to go to game 2. All of a sudden, out of a 2 card hand comes a Scapeshift for 5 with two Sejiri Steppes involved and that’s game boys!

The opponent expected Zoo, with little dudes and burn, and was caught off guard due to a small modification by the Zoo pilot. It is in these moments where being original shows its true value.

I am unfortunately still undecided on what I will be slinging in Houston, or else I would be showing off some other examples of halfway technology. Still, I hope this showed some of the merits regardless. Extended is coming to a close, so stay on your toes for those last few weeks of deck building. Thanks for reading!

Conley Woods

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