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Rogue Report: To Rogue or not to Rogue?

Now that Channelfireball.com is up and running I figure this a good time to talk about why I do what I do. As you may know already, I play rogue decks. Now, I don’t always play rogue decks, but I usually try pretty hard to do so. I’m going to talk about when and why I go rogue, hopefully convincing some of you to join my side.

Why I Go Rogue, and Why I Sometimes Fail

I don’t have anything against netdecks or the people who use them, not at all. I’ve been known to net deck in my day, and I qualified for my first major tournament (Nationals years ago) using a BW Husk list straight from an Osyp Lebedowicz article. The longer I’ve played Magic, however, the more I’ve gone rogue. I’ve become addicted to the raised eyebrow from my opponent as I cast a card he never expected to see. I just love when I hear somebody ask “have you see what Jon Loucks is playing?” or “you’re 3-0 with that?” This addiction can be helpful at times, pushing me to test a format more than I normally would.

Sometimes, however, this addiction makes for some embarrassing performances. I realized recently that I’ve never lost the last round of a PTQ to miss out on Top 8. I think its because I tend to take risks with my decks, and sometimes they pay off. When I was fed up with Time Spiral block, Kellen Abel and I built a Mishra, Artificer Prodigy deck the night before, which I Top 8ed with. Sometimes these things don’t work out, like In Lorwyn Block when I tried to play a unique Elementals deck with Scarscale Ritual to eat my Mystical Teachings. There are reasons why one of these decks succeeded while the other failed, and I’ll get to those. The point for now is, rogue isn’t always right.

Rogue Radar

The first thing you should look for when wanting to go rogue is an undefined or unstable format. For the first Time Spiral Block PTQ all we knew was that White Weenie was the aggro deck of choice, while Tarmogoyf was the best way to control the game. White Weenie was not as dominating as everybody thought, and the rest of the decks weren’t well tuned yet. Before people starting playing streamlined UG decks with Tarmogoyf and Venser you had a lot more breathing room. We saw Mishra, a creature capable of doing broken things, and used the extra time the untuned format gave us. Untapping after a turn four Mishra was enough to win, easy. You even had time to transmute Tolaria West for your Urborg and Tendrils of Corruption a creature. So many decks at that time couldn’t beat you just because of Tendrils, Urborg, and Damnation, let alone Mishra shenanigans. This was a good time to go rogue.

Once the teachings decks cut the chaff and the Tarmogoyf decks became sleek smashing machines, rogue became a lot harder. Mishra couldn’t keep up, nor could anything else I designed. Lorwyn Block was like this from the beginning, with pretty solid Faerie and 5-Color Control lists dominating early on. You could still go rogue (or shaman) but it was a lot harder when you had such defined decks to beat, instead of just doing something powerful yourself.

I really like PTQs early in the season because you usually have more flexibility in the game you play. Martyr of Sands was good for me early in the season because decks hadn’t been optimized yet, and you could steal wins by capitalizing on their inefficiencies. Once the format solidified, this was a lot harder. The biggest shift was the Zoo matchup, which switched from pretty good to horrible. Instead of messing around the first three turns of the game, even tapping out for a Phyrexian Arena, and then winning with a Wrath of God, now you have to deal with Sulfuric Vortex backed by more consistent mana.

Kidney Punch

Don’t worry, there is still hope for a rogue later in the a season. When a format settles people tend to expect certain matchups, so their sideboards become more specific, and their maindecks more predictable. If you can find a new way to attack the format that people aren’t prepared for, you can just waltz through matchups.

Wizards was (and could still be) considered the best deck in Extended, packing Spellstutter Sprites and Spell Snares to thwart any early aggression. Somebody had the idea of foregoing the Tarmogoyfs in their Zoo deck and jumped right up to the three mana slot with Matca Rioters, Doran, and Woolly Thoctar, completely dodging Spell Snare and most Sprites.

My Kiki-Jiki deck succeeded in part because nobody had a good strategy to deal with a Reveillark, especially the Life from the Loam decks. You cast Gifts Ungiven for four cards that guarantee a Reveillark hits play, and many decks had a hard time dealing. If you’ve found a new way to attack the format, that’s a good reason to go rogue.

This Extended season is a good example of a format becoming stretched. So many decks are viable that maindecks and sideboards are being pulled in a bunch of different directions. If your strategy isn’t on their radar it’s unlikely that they’ll have an answer for it in their sideboard. You do have to watch out for rogue decks that lose to hate people are going to play anyway. Protean Hulk probably isn’t the best call in a format ripe with Affinity, and anything that tries to get a Protean Hulk to die will just get Stifled along with Mind’s Desire.

Luckily, with so many viable decks, it means there isn’t one dominant strategy. In past formats we’ve seen decks that sprout around the handful of overpowered cards. Lately the power disparity between cards has been shortened, so there are a lot of powerful cards out there that aren’t seeing play. This also means that, while Wizards is pretty good and you should expect to have to battle through it on the way to victory, you’ll probably face a lot of other decks in the tournament. If you’ve got a bad matchup sometimes you can cross your fingers and get lucky, either avoiding it or just having the game go your way.

Surprise Attack!

Often times the biggest gain to your win percentage in a tournament is the surprise factor. I found this a big help with Kiki-Jiki, especially against the Bant decks. Once they realize you’re playing Pestermite and Kiki-Jiki, they’ll start playing conservatively. They would spend turns leaving mana open instead of casting a threat so they can Mana Leak, Path to Exile, or Path to Exile. If they tested the matchup they would know that the best way to win is to be aggressive early, then Mana Leak one key spell. Instead they give you free time to set up just by being afraid of the unknown.

I’ve been known to brew something up the night before a tournament, but if you do that you’re missing out on one of the biggest bonuses you have with a rogue deck: sideboarding. If you’ve tested a matchup you’ll know what’s important, have relevant sideboard cards, and know how to sideboard. Your opponent will have to figure out, on the fly, what cards in his sideboard, likely there for other matchups, are relevant for this matchup, and have to figure out what to remove from their maindeck. You’re deck is getting much better for the matchup, while your opponent has a very high chance of mis-sideboarding.

One way you can miss out on these advantages is if your deck isn’t doing anything better than the rest of the format. For example, the Elemental deck I played in Lorwyn block had a few interesting cards in it, but the matchups still played out generally the same. I might have liked those cards better than what the other versions were playing, but my opponent’s didn’t have to change their style of play or sideboarding to win. Instead of playing something better, I was just playing something different without any of the advantages of doing so.

Homegrown Rogue

I often find myself playing rogue decks because it’s the deck I know best. I’ll test a deck a few weeks when suddenly it’s Tuesday and the tournament is this weekend. If the deck functions, I’ll usually play it because I know how to play the deck and know the matchups. Even though it’s not the best deck in the format, there is a lot to be said for playing what you know. Going into Grand Prix LA I knew Black-White-Red Martyr of Sands wasn’t the best deck in the tournament, but it was by far the deck I knew best.

I think the real lesson here is to know your deck, no matter what you’re playing. When I build and test my own deck I know every card in the list and why it’s there. This is so helpful when playing because you know how to play towards what you can draw. You know what kinds of lands you can draw, how much removal you have left in your deck, how to mulligan, etc. Not knowing your deck puts you at a huge disadvantage.

Going rogue isn’t an excuse to be lazy. If you don’t put a lot of time into a format it’s hard to expect a lot out of it. I may have built my Kiki-Jiki deck roughly two weeks before the Seattle PTQ, with limited testing, but I started playing the format in December. I definitely put a lot of time into the format, and while a good chunk of that time was with Martyr of Sands it paid off later.

Puff of Smoke

The bottom line: I go rogue because I enjoy it. All the things I just told you are the ways I try to justify playing a wacky deck to myself. Sometimes I’m right and things pay off. Other times I was lying to myself from the beginning and end up crashing. Now I’m going to try to practice what I preach and play a deck even if it’s popular. I’ll probably still go rogue a lot of the time, especially if formats continue to be as open as they have been lately. I’m really looking forward to Pro Tour Honolulu because it should be a largely undefined format. Until then I’m really going to have to improve my drafting skills!

Thanks for reading, and good luck to all the rogues out there.

Jonathon Loucks

Loucksj at gmail

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