by Zaiem Beg
In his “Ask LSV #5“ video feature, LSV said something interesting about what people should play in the M10 Standard environment.
He said, “I don’t like telling people what to play, specifically because there are a lot of good decks most of the time. It’s very rare there’s actually just one deck. And I think without knowing more about a person, I can’t just tell them what to play.”
I spent a lot of time thinking about this response, particularly the last sentence.
“I think without knowing more about a person, I can’t just tell them what to play.”
What does the person have to do with the deck choice? Sure, you can have an environment where several decks are tier one or capable of winning a tournament, and some decks are more difficult to play than others, but why should it matter who’s piloting which deck?
Isn’t being limited to a portion of the available deck choices a hindrance rather than just a matter of preference? These aren’t ice-cream cone flavors we’re talking about here. If Faeries is the right deck for a tournament, and you’re not well-suited to playing that style of deck, then are you better off playing an inferior deck, or are you helping yourself by going to a deck style you’re more comfortable with?
Looking around at the top tables
With any given area, you have the players who you see at or near the top tables at the various tournaments. I compiled a short list of the most consistent players in the area and tried to map out what they’ve played over the years, and if there’s a pattern. And the short answer is that with a couple of exceptions, people tend to gravitate towards certain deck styles.
Mike Thompson, for example, is a Seattle ringer whose name was on last year’s Hall of Fame ballot (amassing a pretty quiet 100 pro points). Every time I’ve seen him play a Constructed deck, he’s playing four Meddling Mage if the card is legal, and he’s playing some sort of U/W fishy deck wherever possible. Play some guys, make good attacks and blocks, get some card advantage and card draw, and play very tight. And it’s worked well for him at both the PTQ and the professional level. He eschewed Faeries during Lorwyn block and went with Merfolk instead, and did the same for Grand Prix: Seattle. He’s a very skilled player and he has been essentially playing the same deck for the last half decade or longer.
Someone like Mike Gurney, on the other hand, is almost guaranteed to be playing Islands. [As opposed to the Islands in Fish?
-Riki] Gurney’s not a HOF-eligible guy, but has a Grand Prix and a Pro Tour top eight to his name, and has won close to a dozen PTQs, as well as top 32ing Pro Tour: Hollywood. I’ve never seen him play a Constructed deck without his trademark Beta Islands, and his decks are very deliberate control decks, eking out card advantage and savagely punishing mistakes.
The third example is Bill Stark. The sample size on this one is a little small because I haven’t known him that long (although I have gotten to know him fairly well in a short time), but Bill joined the competitive Seattle community this winter after his internship at Wizards of the Coast expired, and almost instantly became a thoroughly ensconced member of the community. Bill is another PTQ ringer with a couple of wins and 20ish or so top 8s, as well as a Grand Prix top 8. (He also has a blog, although the address of his blog escapes me at the moment.) He played in six Extended PTQs last season, top 8ing three and not making top 8 in the other three. The three he did top 8 were the PTQs when he played aggro decks, and the three misses were when he was not. He noted this and said something to the effect of, “Maybe I should have been playing aggro decks all along.”
My personal experience
I started off playing aggro decks and did fairly well at them, enjoying good results early on by turning creatures sideways and burning faces, putting me one match win away from a PTQ top 8 a month after learning how to play Magic, and one game win away from a Nationals qualification in my first season of competitive Magic.
Then I got away from turning creatures sideways and tried to expand my horizons, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing. I made some abysmally bad deck choices, and I even remember saying to a friend, “I really like midrange decks.” Every deck I tried to play for a while was a midrange thing that put up okay results but never got me the success I wanted. (Through some long, painful experiences of mediocrity, I learned the hard way that midrange decks are about the last kind of deck I want to be playing, and if you want more on this topic, read LSV’s article on it. It’s a good one.)
Lorwyn Block Constructed was the low point, as that environment was just not well-suited for anything I was trying to do. I had resisted playing Faeries, as I didn’t like the idea of playing the mirror, so I played a variety of homebrew decks (and one Conley Woods concoction), never finding my comfort level. I tried Five-Color Control at the last PTQ of the season, and through a series of misplays, poor decisions, a little bad luck, more poor decisions, and more misplays, I left the PTQ with my self-confidence severely shaken and with a heavy heart, not knowing what was going on, or how I could have regressed so severely as a Magic player.
Someone pointed out that Mike Thompson, who was fighting through a tough top 8 at that PTQ, was doing well with a deck that he just felt comfortable with, and it was a deck style that he was comfortable with. It dawned on me that I was playing decks that never felt right, and I felt way out of my comfort level, and the results reflected it.
The next Constructed season, I brute-forced reasonable results with WBr Martyr–which Jon Loucks and I had co-designed to take advantage of what we felt was a warped metagame–largely due to incessant testing during a week in which I was snowed in and couldn’t go anywhere, leaving me with nothing to do but test Martyr online. Although my results were not bad playing this hyper-controlling deck, opponents who knew me told me that I was much less fun to play against and I looked very stressed out.
When the environment for Martyr turned hostile at Grand Prix: Los Angeles, I switched to various varieties of Naya Zoo, and put up relatively solid finishes. People told me that I looked way more relaxed and comfortable. So despite my aversion to being pigeonholed as an aggro player, that’s where I seemed to find my comfort level. It turns out that I still love turning guys sideways and burning faces.
So when I was going to the final Extended PTQ of the season and asked LSV what I should play, he responded with this:
“Ranger Zoo. From what I have gathered, it seems to suit you best and it’s obviously good. It’s one of the two or three decks I think can win.”
What if the environment’s not right?
One of the keys is that it’s got to be one of the decks that can win a tournament. Some dippy little aggro deck that’s tier three, no matter how well it suits my style, isn’t the kind of deck I’m going to be willing to sleeve up and fight people with. If the environment is just poorly-positioned for an aggro deck, then what do I do? What if all the top tier decks (decks that are capable of winning the tournament) are outside of my comfort level?
And this is where I run out of answers. I don’t know what the right call is if the decks that best suit you are tier two. Do you play the tier two deck that you’re going to play well (but it’s tier two), or do you play the tier one deck and try to fight through it?
And this is where we come back to the issue of being pigeonholed and how it can be a liability. We’ve come full-circle. My solution is to hedge my bets a bit. I play other decks in less high-profile tournaments. I try to FNM with controlling decks, and I play a fair bit on Magic Online with a large swath of deck archetypes, hammering through match after match with decks that don’t necessarily turn guys sideways and burn faces.
(A quick aside: If you’re not on the Magic Online bandwagon, it really is the greatest thing ever. The up front investment is a little hefty for Constructed, and it may seem silly at first to pay real money for digital cards, but it’s not that difficult to make your money back on Magic Online. One feature that has been just absolutely invaluable to me is the ability to watch your own game replays, and go over them over and over again and pinpoint why you won or lost, and you can do “what-if” scenarios and get an idea of what happens if you play X card instead of Y. I resisted using Magic Online as a serious tool until very recently, and I’m certain it set back my development as a player.)
I’m curious to know what others have experienced as they’ve moved around from various deck styles. Should a top-notch player not care about what deck is handed to them, as they should be able to pilot it competently and with minimal mistakes? I really would love feedback in the comments area or in the forums on this one.
Sad news on the “farewell to 10th Edition challenge”
Though I did break the 10th Edition Standard format with only a few days to go in the format’s legality, Dwayne St. Arnauld running my challenge never happened. There was a very nasty, contagious strain of the flu going around at one of the Seattle-area Prerelease venues and I know of roughly a dozen people who were at the Prerelease who came down with a relatively horrific set of symptoms like fevers of 103+ degrees. I was one of the unlucky few. When the day of the challenge came around, I had no desire to leave the house, nor did I have any desire to infect the good people at the Thursday night Standard event.
So we’ll never know how good the deck was, as it does not survive the rotation. Alas.
(Dwayne did concede to me that he thinks he would have gone 0-5 with the deck. One of the great missed opportunities in life.)
zaiemb at gmail dot com