Over the weekend I was fortunate enough to win the final spot on the Australian World Magic Cup team with my signature deck, Boros Burn. While this article is about that tournament, with rotation upon us I am much more interested in re-visiting the lessons I learned this season, so that we can apply them to the new Standard format.
The World Magic Cup takes place this December in Nice, France and will be my first time playing Magic on the international stage and I am filled with a mix of nerves and anticipation. I am sure by the time the event rolls around I will be filled with excitement to represent Australia.
I had traveled to one prior WMCQ, where I finished in the Top 16 with a BG Rock deck. The deck exactly as expected, and I did enjoy playing it, but I left the event with the distinct feeling that I had picked the wrong sort of deck for an event where all that matters is finishing in first place—more on this later.
Fast-forward to this last weekend and the final WMCQ would be taking place in my home town of Melbourne. Since that previous WMCQ, I had been in contact with a few other burn players, notably Jacob Hart (who largely pushed me in the right direction), Nick Newman (WMCQ New Zealand 1st place with Boros Burn) and Jason Cheung (also WMCQ New Zealand 1st place with Boros Burn). Independently we had been coming to many of the same conclusions, but it was only through reflection that I realized where I had been going wrong for the last few months—I had allowed my lists to become increasingly cute and reactive, sideboarding answers to the questions my opponents were posing, rather than simply imposing my strategy on them.
I arrived at the following list:
Boros Burn, WMCQ Melbourne 1st Place by James Fazzolari
Sideboarding is simply a matter of removing the least impactful cards in the main deck, then replacing them with the highest-impact sideboard options. Chained to the Rocks and Satyr Firedancer were for creature decks; Eidolon of the Great Revel and the Glare of Heresy were for control decks (while doubling as additional hate for GW Aggro).
Round 1: BG Dredge 2-0
Round 2: Naya Hexproof 2-0
Round 3: GW Aggro 2-1
Round 4: Jund Walkers 2-1
Round 5: UWR Control 2-1
Round 6: BG Rock 2-1
Round 7: Concede to a friend to lock him into Top 8
Round 8: RW Soldiers 2-0
Quarterfinal: BW Control 2-1
Semifinal: GW Aggro 2-0
Final: Esper Control 2-1
Importantly, I drew a lot of opening hands with Young Pyromancer.
By the end of the day I was too emotionally exhausted to really celebrate. Not only had I been forced to slay several good friends along the way, but I was constantly reminded of how hard the deck was to play optimally—even for a player like myself with an enormous amount of experience.
To be honest, winning just did not feel real. In game three of the finals, after my opponent made his third land drop and passed the turn back I knew the game was over—his hand was reactive with many spells costing four or more and he could not remove my Eidolon of the Great Revel. Sure enough, two turns later he had to go for the desperation Blood Baron and a flurry of burn spells sealed victory; but it was a surreal experience knowing the game would end like that for so long. I am not sure what I expected winning my first major event would feel like—I was mostly just relieved to have finally won something.
With Boros Burn, games tend to play out in one of four different ways:
A. Your respective draws do not interact in a meaningful way and you wreck them. This could be the all-burn-spell draw against the removal deck, or the Young Pyromancer and any other card against the creature deck; either way it does not matter because you just win. These games are relatively easy to play and the lines are obvious.
B. You get wrecked. This does not happen very often, but sometimes they have the turn two Courser of Kruphix or Bow of Nylea or Nyx-Fleece Ram and you are just dead. It is worth noting that you are almost certainly better off just accepting that games will end like this than making concessions elsewhere in the deck to try and save these games.
C. You are racing each other. This is very common against other aggressive strategies when you do not have a Young Pyromancer, or they can remove it (it cannot be raced). Other times, your opponent has no other choice because they cannot interact with the spells that you are point at them every turn in a relevant way. Many players will miss this crucial tipping point in a game, not realizing that their only way to win is to kill you as quickly as possible. After all, Boros Burn has an enormous amount of inevitability.
One of the advantages of the archetype in games like these is that your deck almost entirely plays at instant speed, which puts substantial pressure on your opponent to play around as much as possible, while still advancing their own plan towards a win. Sometimes you have lost but then your opponent does not attack (or does!) or makes some other very reasonable play based on the information available to them and you are able to snatch victory. There is so much subtle information available in every game of Magic—the more you are attuned to this, the better understanding you will have of what is in your opponent’s hand and what they think is in yours. Pay attention to the way your opponent sequences his plays, re-arranges their hand when deciding whether or not to mulligan or how their posture might change with a draw step—in my semifinal against GW Aggro, I was able to repeatedly attack into his open mana with my Satyr Firedancer, then stop attacking the turn he drew an Advent of the Wurm.
D. Some games go long and there will be many important decisions for each player. Probably the biggest misunderstanding of Standard Burn is that unlike its Eternal format relatives, the deck does not need to win quickly. Boros Burn has many resources available for the long game: Chandra’s Phoenix, scry from Temple of Triumph, and Magma Jet and Mutavault all give you a much stronger endgame than what other aggro strategies enjoy. Little tricks like remembering to Magma Jet in your upkeep to fix draws, or to Skullcrack in their upkeep to force their action can make a difference in these games.
It is so critical to always think ahead, and anticipating the various possible board states that might arise. While this certainly is not easy, in grindy games, it is really the only way to increase your chances of winning. Unlike in a type A game, where you just scry into a faster kill, there are other considerations when games go long and it is not uncommon to lose a very long game to a single mistake made in the first few turns. The deck does not function when you play each turn individually, trying to maximize damage. All that matters is winning in the end and sometimes that means just passing back. Knowing when to switch from the aggressor into a control role and back is paramount, and comes with experience.
One opponent called me lucky after our match, because he had got me to a single life in both of our games, whereas I had slain him for exactsies. The truth was that I had calculated that end result in both games many turns ahead.
Here is an interview I did a few days after the event with one of my testing partners, Sam Loy from team Sneak and Show.
As you can see, I have been in quite a reflective mood since winning. I had been under so much pressure to win a relevant event (almost entirely self-imposed) that I was more happy that the pressure was gone than at the notion of going to France. I have learned a lot over the last seven months, and I want to share some of those lessons with you, so that you can improve your own games.
Play a deck appropriate for your goals
I am somewhat embarrassed that I never really figured this out by myself. My friend Sam Loy had to point it out to me (Sam was right!). I was not picking the right sort of deck to win a PTQ or WMCQ type event, where you literally need to all but one round to make the Top 8 and the large prizes. In essence, you need to play a deck that gives you a bit of room to run well and pick up free wins. Boros Burn might have been the best deck in Standard when that is what you are after.
I was making the mistake of taking the same MTGO grinder mentality that had served me so well online into these events. In contrast, there is not so much of a difference between a winning record and a perfect record in a single MTGO Daily—about $20. This means that the real value is to be had by obtaining the highest possible level of consistency in the long term, so you want to play a deck that optimizes that. My BG Rock deck would have made me a small fortune on MTGO, but it was not going to win me an invite anywhere. I will not make this kind of mistake again.
Check your ego, own your mistakes
It is no secret that I can be extremely difficult to get on with, both in person and online—though it is mostly covering up for my own insecurities. I can be self assured to the point of arrogance, and at times inappropriately dismissive of other ideas. The thing is, behaving like that does not help anyone, least of all myself. For a long time I could get away with this because I was a big fish in a small pond, but since starting to interact with much more successful players, both domestically and internationally, I have grown to appreciate that I have not yet accomplished anything. Confronting this can only be a good thing, because when you truly appreciate that you are not good, and only then are you really open to improvement. I am still not very good, but I am a lot better than I was six months ago.
The game does not owe you anything
No matter how much time, energy or money you invest in the game, you deserve exactly zero success and zero recognition.
Part of improving is accepting how much responsibility we individually have for our own successes and failures. While it is easy to blame variance when we lose, there are still many relevant decision points in a game that we can take advantage of; perhaps the first step is simply accepting variance and trying to win through it. It is incredibly limiting to convince yourself that you should beat someone because you are better than them—what now, after you have lost? Truth be told, winning or losing any single game, or even any event does not really matter; in the end no one but you really cares and bad players spike major events all of the time. It is very likely, however, that the players that we look up to and consider to be “great” have been extremely consistent over a long period of time—these are your Luis Scott-Vargases or Ben Starks, and that is what we should aim for.
Always do your best, always be trying to improve
Tying in to what I have written above, you need to make the most of every opportunity. This does not just mean at tournaments; it means in casual games and in practice too. Always try to play like it is a final, then discuss all the decision points after—you might be surprised what you missed or what your opponent can point out. Seek out the best players in your area and look forward to them mercilessly crushing you. When you are playing gauntlet decks to help a friend get used to his deck, actually try and win, even if you are not even slightly interested in the deck that you personally are playing. You owe it to your friend to give him real practice.
I believe this came up in the final round of the WMCQ Swiss when I was paired against RW Soldiers (the Obelisk of Urd deck). I offered to draw with my opponent, locking us each into the Top 4 of the event. My opponent declined, telling me that he had tested against Boros Burn with friends and that the matchup was very favorable. I beat him in about fifteen minutes, including shuffling.
Young Pyromancer is an inherently unfair magic card
Thank you to ChannelFireball for taking interest in me nearly a year ago, Sneak and Show for taking me in and making me the player that I am now, and to all the other friends I have made along the way. I hope to make you all proud at the World Magic Cup.
Our next instalment of Playing with Fire will be the Khans of Tarkir red deck review, featuring a few deck ideas that I have already cooked up! Enjoy your prereleases.
Some have said that destruction lacks subtlety. You know what? They’re dead