I’ve never really been considered a deckbuilder. I have had a hand in building a lot of the most powerful tournaments decks lately, but it is very rare that I come up with a different idea that is good all by myself. Even if you take the deck I was mostly involved with in recent memory, Dark Depths from PT Austin, the idea was not mine – I was probably responsible for the other 52 cards in the deck, but the Hexmage/Depths did not come from me.
Regardless of that, though, I still manage to do well on the Pro Tour. In fact, I generally have a pretty good deck (which is never the product of my work alone). My goal for this article is to talk about deckbuilding from the eyes of someone who is not a deckbuilder – I’ll try to list some of the mistakes that most people make and how you can correct them.
Innovation is mostly overrated
A while ago, AJ Sacher wrote an article about how innovation was overrated. Conley then wrote a rebuttal article saying that innovation was, in fact, underrated. In my opinion, it is actually both. When I say I am not a deckbuilder, that doesn’t mean I don’t have ideas – I have plenty of them. Most of them – the overwhelming majority of them, pretty much all of them – are just not good enough. Why does that happen to me? Why is it that I of all people have so many bad ideas?
Well, the truth is, I don’t. It happens to me because I am normal. Chances are you’re normal too, and this happens to you just like it happens to me, except you don’t want to accept it. If you want to succeed at a higher level, you have to internalize that most innovation – from you, me, AJ, Conley, Mark Rosewater – is simply not good enough.
While it is true that sometimes you have to think outside the box, both in playing and in deckbuilding, I feel like people do it far too much. If you really care about winning, then you have to do whatever is best, not whatever is most different or most innovative. One of my favorite Harry Potter quotes (and, trust me, there are many of those, because Harry Potter is awesome) is when Dolores Umbridge says in book 5 that “progress for progress’s sake must be discouraged.” If you have a reason to be different, then be different, but challenging conventional wisdom just because you want to be known as the challenger of conventional wisdom will get you nowhere in a game of Magic, in fact quite the opposite. In this aspect, I would say innovation is greatly overrated – whatever advantage you think you are gaining by catching them off guard with your brew is probably 10 times smaller than you think it is, and likely does not make up for playing worse cards.
There is, however, another aspect. Though I do believe innovation will often harm you inside a game of Magic, it can bring great dividends outside of it. Let’s quote Conley in his article: “If we did not think that we were improving our chances at winning over the long run, we would probably not be doing what we are doing.” I completely agree, if you extending winning to more than that particular game of Magic. By innovating, you can become famous in the Magic community very quickly. You can become well liked very quickly, because people like innovation. You might also just enjoy playing your own decks more than you enjoy winning – all this brings dividends that might be way more important to you than match wins. I think that most people who innovate do it because of that, even if unconsciously – they force themselves to believe they have a better chance of winning with a brew, when in fact they just want to be different.
Let’s take Conley as an example again. Conley is a very famous player, a lot of people know him and a lot of people love him. Is that because of his results? Hardly so. Not that his results are bad, far from it, but they’re not enough to justify the amount of attention he gets – I’m sure there are a lot of people with similar results that you’ve never even heard of. The reason Conley is liked so much and that he is so famous is because he plays different decks. In this position, being innovative brings Conley more rewards than playing an accepted good deck; it’s possible that he would have t8ed two more GPs in his life if he had played regular decks, but he would probably be less known with those two top 8s than he is now.
It’s important to understand here that I am not judging – I am merely stating how it is. I completely understand why people do the things they do, and I do not think they’re wrong to do so, quite the contrary – if you’re Conley, I would say that right now you get more by playing a brew deck and finishing 8th than by playing a regular deck and finishing 4th. I just want to make sure that you, the reader, understand the implications of what you are doing so you can make a conscious choice. If you want match wins, then you are better off just playing a “good deck” the vast majority of the time. If you want a better chance at fame, recognition, fortune, women, then you should try to innovate. Just make sure you also understand that innovating is very very easy, but innovating and still winning enough that it will bring you this recognition is very hard. A lot of the decks I see around do look very creative, but it’s not hard to be creative when you take down the “good” requirement – I’m pretty sure anyone can do it and it does not give you much merit. There are hundreds of Conley Woods in every event, but you only know Conley Woods, since he is the one that wins enough despite handicapping himself, because that is what he does in almost every event. As far as match wins are concerned, by playing his own decks every time, Conley gives up more than he gains.
I do not say this from an outsider’s perspective only – I’ve definitely been through what I’ve described. I think I’ve played weird cards/decks because of other reasons than being good many times, but one of them really stands out. As you might know if you’ve read my story, when I was very young I played in GP Curitiba (Extended) with a Battle of Wits deck. The reason I played it (and it took me a long while to admit this to myself, believe me), was not because I thought it had the best chance to win. Now don’t get me wrong, I didn’t think it was HORRIBLE; I thought I could actually win, but who are we kidding? The reason I played it was because I wanted to be different, I wanted to be recognized, I wanted to be in the coverage. And it worked, I did – there is even a picture of me despite not even day 2ing (and I had 3 byes, AND IT WAS SEVEN ROUNDS! I guess some decks are weird enough that you don’t have to do well at all). By the end of the tournament, everyone knew who I was – I’d wager more people knew who “the Battle of Wits kid” was than people knew who finished 5th place in the GP. Was it worth it? Looking back, no – I wish I had played a real deck. Especially because most people thought I had been an idiot, and that’s not a very good kind of popularity.
Traps we create to ourselves
One of the problems with building or selecting a deck for a tournament is that we really, really want our deck to be good. We all dream of winning with our own deck, with the one we designed and tuned especially for that tournament. We imagine Brian David-Marshall and Richard Hagon talking about us during the top 8 matches, and how no one had thought of that before. We imagine tweeting an apology to Mark Rosewater for breaking the format so bad they had to ban a card – maybe they’ll have to hire you to R&D to make sure that doesn’t happen again. We imagine writing it all in our winning tournament report. We imagine having to create a fan page on Facebook, because we’ll receive so many comments related to the deck that our non-Magic friends will actually be annoyed at the updates. Once we are at that point, how are we expected to let it go?
We must. We have to understand that, as much as we want our deck to be good, a lot of the times it is not, and then we have to move on. The biggest problem is that, as they say, there’s none so blind as those who will not see, and when our own creations are concerned, we really do not want to see. This starts in testing.
When we playtest, the goal should be to figure out what is good and what is bad, or how to play a certain deck/matchup. Yet, most people take playtesting way more seriously than they should – they do not really want to find out if their deck is good, they want to show everyone that their deck is good. If you think their deck is bad, or if you (god forbid) show them their deck is bad by beating it over and over, they’ll actually be angry at you. When that is the case, they start making excuses for themselves whenever they lose. With time, you learn to identify them – the easiest and most common one is “I got unlucky/you got so lucky!” When you find yourself thinking that too much in playtesting, stop and think for a while – perhaps it is not so, and perhaps your deck is not so good. There is an excuse that is way more dangerous, though, because it is so much easier to believe – “I played badly.”
The reason this is so much harder to spot as an excuse is that you admit to something, which makes it look like you’d admit to anything that is really wrong. It really does sound a lot more credible to you and to everyone else – after all, you’ve already admitted to being wrong, why would you not admit it if your deck was not good? You’ve clearly shown you are capable of it, and would have done it if you were actually guilty.
Imagine, for example, that your parents went away and you broke two vases during their trip. They come back, and you tell them the dog broke the two vases. They might believe you, they might not, and if they ever find out you did break one, then they’ll automatically assume you broke the other. Now if you go ahead and tell them you broke the smaller one but the dog broke the bigger one, there is a much better chance they’ll believe you, because you’ve already proved you can admit to your mistakes, and if you are admitting to one, why would you not admit to both? Whenever you do something bad, it always makes it easier to “escape” if you admit to the lesser thing. In a playtesting scenario, playing badly is clearly the lesser thing, and your deck being good the most important one – but admitting to playing badly does not mean your deck is good! I believe we do this a lot, even subconsciously, and it is very important that we are aware of what is really happening.
You can also see this point clearly in deckbuilders reports. When someone is famous for being a deckbuilder, they will very often say that they lost because they made a mistake, but that “the deck would have won.” The reason they do that is that they reputation as a deckbuilder is more important to them than their reputation as a player – they would rather you think they play bad (often because that ship has already sailed) than that you think their decks are bad, because that is the lesser of the things to admit.
Another important aspect is that we have a very selective memory – we remember the losses we should not have had, but we never remember the wins that we were given. Sometimes you think your deck is good and then you win a lot in the first playtesting session, but you should not try to care for results alone, but for how the games were played – perhaps you were getting lucky and skewing the results. Perhaps your opponent was not as good, which would also skew the results.
At GP Dallas, a friend of mine played a “brew” deck. He ended up one win short of day 2ing, and when I inquired about the deck, he replied with “yeah the deck was good, I could have won all the matches that I lost had I played differently, so it’s like the deck day 2ed.” That might even be true, but how about the matches that he won? Would he have won them if his opponents were playing differently? Is it fair to count the ones you mess up as “wins for the deck,” and then count the ones where you should have lost but your opponent messed up as “wins for the deck” as well? In this situation, I believe you’re just lying to yourself – again, you choose the lesser admittance.
Good decks play powerful cards
Lately, there have been a lot of authors who champion the idea that “good decks play powerful cards,” and I couldn’t agree more. The real problem with this “motto” lies in the evaluation of what a powerful card is. Nowadays, a common method is to make a top 10 list, and then see how many of those cards the top decks play. The problem is that the cards that go in the top 10 lists go there because they’re played in the best decks! This creates a sort of circular logic that would make Menendian proud, where “the best decks play the better cards, which are the cards that are played in the best decks” – makes sense and makes you look like a genius (after all your best cards will all be played in the top decks, and the top decks will play all your best cards), but doesn’t actually do anything for you.
I think the best way to do this is to just say that good decks will generally play cards that are intrinsically powerful. A powerful card is not one that “goes into a powerful deck” (because, again, that would be circular) – it is a card that crushed them, a card that you’re happy to draw when you’re behind, a card that makes a difference, a card they don’t want you to draw in a certain situation, a card that makes you wish “WHY AM I NOT PLAYING THAT CARD?” By the same level, a card is not powerful when you’re disgusted to draw it, when it makes you question why you’re actually playing it.
It doesn’t take much to realize that a card like Jace, the Mind Sculptor is more powerful than a card like Ornithopter – just hold the two for a moment, one in each hand, and keep reading them until it eventually comes to you. If you do not own a Jace, the Mind Sculptor to do the experiment, then close this article right now – clearly you do not take Magic seriously enough (this is a joke. It is directed at Kyle Boggeymans). If you do not own an Ornithopter, then you automatically pass, because all the bad people love Ornithopter (this is not a joke).
One of my biggest problems with decks like Ramp, WW Quest and Kuldotha Red is that they play a lot of extremely weak cards, thus becoming slaves of synergy. Memnite, Signal Pest, Llanowar Elves, and Rampant Growth are all horrible cards to draw at many points of the game, and if you play as many of them as you do in those decks, you’ll be in major trouble if some of your pieces are disrupted.
It is important to realize, though, that the best decks do not have to play the most intrinsically good cards. Faeries, for example, played some cards that were simply not “powerful,” like Scion of Oona, but context made them powerful. As long as the rest of your deck is powerful enough by itself, then you’re fine with some situational cards; it’s the “all weak but situationally strong cards” that I have a problem with.
Know the reasons
“Being powerful” is not enough justification for you to play a card, though. Every card you play should have a reason to be there, and, please understand this: the card text is not enough reason!
A while ago, I posted a Twitter message that said “Can someone explain to me why Liliana Vess is suddenly good?” in reference to the top 8 of GP Barcelona and the fact that she had never really been much played before, at least not in this format. Half the tweets I got back were almost copy/pastes of the card text. “She’s good because she discards cards.” “She can tutor for anything you want!” “Big Starting Loyalty!!” “She has a game-winning ultimate!” People, that is what she does, not why she is good. Besides, if that was all there was to it, I wouldn’t need to ask – I can clearly read the card myself.
More importantly, not only is this all written on the card, but this has always been written on the card. Last year, when no one played her, she discarded cards, tutored for cards and reanimated dudes just the same, and her starting loyalty was also 5. The real question was why she was good NOW, what changed in the environment to make her a good card when she wasn’t before.
Now, some people actually came up with something like “if you can deal with Sword via some sort of discard, then they will be left with 1/1s and 1/2s, which don’t deal with Liliana very well because of her big starting loyalty. Even if they do have Sword, it takes 3 turns for a Sworded mystic to kill Liliana, and every time they attack it they waste their Sword.” “Decks have been shying away from countermagic in favor of Inquisition, which doesn’t deal with Liliana” could also have been an explanation.
Now, that makes sense. Does that mean Liliana is good? No. But if she is good now, that is part of the reason why. People who answered, “Discard for free? sign me up!” are not trying to understand why the card is good. Why don’t you play Liliana in Vampires? It’s discard for free, tutors for any card you want, and the ultimate is even better there!
If they don’t know why it’s good, they’ll never know when it’s correct to have her in your deck, when it’s correct to tap out for her, when it’s correct to side her in or side her out, when it’s correct to throw a chump blocker in the way of a creature attacking her.
There are a couple ways to better understand the Whys. The first is to simply ask “why” instead of whatever you’re asking. A lot of the time, people come to me and ask, for example, “what would you side versus this deck” or “would you keep this hand on the play?” I then tell them what I’d side or if I’d keep, and they say “thank you.” They never ask Why. Then, the next day, they’ll face a slightly different match, or open a slightly different hand, and they’ll have to ask again, whereas if they understood the reasons then they would be able to think for themselves. During playtesting, you are the person you should be asking “Why?” to.
Again, it goes back to playtesting better. By playtesting better, I mean that you have to stop caring so much about what is winning and instead start questioning yourself why it is winning. If you find out that UWb loses to Valakut because it cannot reliably deal with Primeval Titan, then you can solve it by adding Flashfreezes to your sideboard. If you find out that you’re still losing because they play Titan when you have to tap out, then you might try playing Memoricide instead. If you’re losing with Valakut to UWb because of Stoneforge Mystic and Sword of Feast and Famine, you might want to play Lightning Bolts. If what kills you is Jace and counters, though, then maybe Summoning Traps are better than Green Sun’s Zenith, or perhaps it is time to play Gaea’s Revenge again. To solve a problem, you must be able to identify the problem, and you do that by playtesting with the right question in mind (that question is Why, in case you haven’t gotten it yet).
Well, this is all I’ve got. Of course, like pretty much everything else I write, this is not absolute – sometimes it is correct to deviate. Sometimes, we should just stick to our guns and play our brew when no one else believes it. Sometimes, we do get unlucky and we do play badly. It is important to recognize those, but from my experience they happen a lot less than we convince ourselves they do. In the end, the only person you’re fooling is yourself, and this is not a good place to be.
I hope you’ve enjoyed this,
See you next week!