In 2012, you would be hard-pressed to find yourself in any kind of a serious Constructed tournament, look in front of you, look around the room, and see a single deck that is not sleeved. And not just sleeved, but opaque-sleeved in Ultra Pros or orange Japanese imports, maybe a set of Who's the Beatdowns from here on StarCityGames.com.
This, however, was not always the case.
Coming up in the 1990s, it was pretty frequent to see players tear through a Regionals, PTQ, or even Pro Tour without sleeves. Some players—myself included at one point—held it almost as a point of pride to shuffle and play our extensive cards until they were visibly worn.
This once gorgeous Mishra's Factory and I have visited Blue Envelope town together. She didn't get white around the edges from being lovingly double sleeved. She never failed me in a deck check.
In the first Arena League season, one of the prizes was a special basic Mountain. I had a deck that played two basic Mountains, and conveniently I owned two Arena Mountains with which I could pimp out my deck. I don't know how I got the Mountains (probably traded for them), but I do recall each of them had a white vertical seam down the back. Unfortunately, I couldn't produce these basic lands the way I could the above Factory, but the mark was distinct, presumably thanks to a player who shuffled with his thumbs to the sides of his deck rather than long ways.
I played with sleeves at that tournament, but certainly tournament operations were not for me then what I understand them to be now. Case in point: I played with clear sleeves.
When was the last time you saw clear sleeves at a tournament?!?
It turns out I didn't do very well at that tournament, but years later the operations I had still stick out in my mind. I would guess I will never forget for one reason: I always knew when I was going to draw one of those Arena Mountains.
I can't say that I actually took huge advantage of that knowledge or if it was even conscious knowledge. But I would guess that if I had one of those white-seamed backs on top of my deck and someone asked me what the top card was, I could pretty confidently say, "Basic Mountain." That's a problem, right? In a sense, whether or not I took advantage of this (or how enforced this kind of rule was a bazillion years back), I played through that tournament with an edge that was outside the rules. Woe is me if Helene is reading this!
Let me switch gears for a moment and come back around.
Last weekend at the StarCityGames.com Legacy Open in Las Vegas, I observed a very impressive process by my longtime friend David Williams. In between rounds, Dave laid out his deck and wrote down notes on which land could get which land. He was playing a four-color Deathrite Shaman deck with Misty Rainforest, Polluted Delta, Flooded Strand...and Bayou, Tundra, Underground Sea, etc.
Dave wrote out a little spider web of all the lands his fetches could get and made additional notes on which they could not get. Flooded Strand was second best (couldn't get Bayou) and of course Polluted Delta was the best, as it was able to get every kind of original dual land in a deck that sought to cast both Supreme Verdict and Liliana of the Veil.
Dave, a many-fold champion in Magic (even winning a Grand Prix earlier this year), probably doesn't strike you as the kind of player who "needs help" winning more at this game, but he recognized that even a player with Pro Tour Top 8 chops and a 2012 Grand Prix win can benefit from the process of making such a cheat sheet, even if he never references it.
What are your deck's capabilities?
Does it have any obvious blind spots?
What do you do if you find yourself in [common problem situation]?
Knowing the answers to questions like these—or even which questions to ask—is the kind of thing that can help you win more games. It's not tough to win the games you are "supposed" to win: the mana screw games, the great matchups. But consider this a moment:
Playing a deck with 20+ assorted dual lands, many Legacy aficionados will look at a hand with a Misty Rainforest and a Polluted Delta and not think twice about which one they play on the first turn. It doesn't even occur to many of them that there might be a difference. You now know, though, that even if your plan is to find Underground Sea (available by either) that Polluted Delta (at least in the deck Dave played) is the card you should not play. What if it is absolutely imperative that you find Scrubland?
One of the most precious examples I can think of is a US Nationals when the card Waylay temporarily acted like a white Ball Lightning, but only if you knew the timing. Opponents might have the phrase at the end of your turn, after "at end of turn" effects have been put on the stack, Waylay written down in front of them.
Over time—certainly over the course of many hours or even multiple days of successful play—you can and probably will internalize the things you once took a moment to write down initially via repetition. You get presented the Misty versus the Delta choice three times, maybe you go wrong the first time, maybe you get stung. You see it and see it and see it again... It becomes a pattern for you, and you know how to approach the pattern... The same way that I saw the creased back of the basic Mountain I felt "pimped out" playing. I saw it over and over and even if I wasn't savvy enough to take advantage of this at the time... I probably should have been. A Mountain I played clear sleeved for maybe five rounds total, more than ten years ago, but might never forget.
Before the Standard Open in Vegas, I had the opportunity to work with a new friend Guy, who first showed me the Travis Woo / LSV Omni-Door deck (a deck that Dave Williams played on camera soon after). Guy had an absolute ton of life gain creatures in his sideboard for the expected Rakdos matchup, which was fine... But he didn't' have eleven cards he wanted to take out.
So I asked him this:
Your opponent has just hit you with Thundermaw Hellkite, and you are about to take your fifth turn. Which of these three do you most want to draw?
Guy snapped Thragtusk, as I knew he would.
Okay. Right answer. Of the other two, which would you rather draw?
Guy chose Centaur Healer, which I would—in my hypothetical, i.e., a situation where Guy might need the most help from his sideboard—probably agree with. That, of course, puts the role of Rhox Faithmender into question. After all, we would probably expect more from the four-drop than the three-drop in terms of impact, and we are paying more mana for it.
I asked my booth buddy Patrick Sullivan, as one of the world's foremost red mages, to order the three cards in terms of scariest to least scary if he were an opposing aggro deck. Very surprisingly, he did this:
I was pretty surprised... Rhox Faithmender first? What gives?
Pat laughed. That guy never comes alone. When you see him, you know there is always more coming! Do you know how bad it is for them to hit that AND THEN Thragtusk? He is for sure the scariest for that reason.
Ladies and gentlemen: Patrick Sullivan.
PSulli kind of answered a better question than the one I even thought I was asking. It's like when Zvi Mowshowitz was asked what card from an old set he would most like to see in an upcoming core set and he said Yavimaya Cost. It isn't going to come alone. Given the implications of a Rhox Faithmender, it really is the scariest of the three. It's like seeing the first Illusions of Grandeur. That card doesn't come alone. It's scary precisely because it doesn't come alone!
We were building a sideboard of many cards and multiple life gain cards, not just a Jund-style stack of individually efficient effects. Not only was Rhox Faithmender maybe leading into Thragtusk, but it could combo just fine with Sphinx's Revelation. I was trying to figure out which two of the three to play, but the holistic implication of PSulli's red mage response put us on a completely different road.
I am very happy to say that after all that, Guy ended up in the money. You can read his tournament report here.
You may recall that a few weeks ago I was posting decks and videos featuring Rakdos and / or Jund Midrange decklists, most of which heavily featured Liliana of the Dark Realms. After some initial nonsense, I got quite a lot of interesting and helpful feedback, including finding out Brian Kibler had had similar thoughts on Rakdos or that Michael Hetrick liked parts of my Jund deck but had harsh, if salient, feedback on other parts.
Patrick Chapin criticized my underutilization of Vampires in Rakdos (I had separately discovered just how good Olivia Voldaren was in the Jund testing), and Hetrick had some good points about the appropriateness of some of my removal choices, especially given a metagame then evolving towards big and hasty four- and five-drops in the most successful deck; maybe four Borderland Rangers and four Liliana of the Dark Realms were a bit much.
I thought back to a previous notion about the power level of cards in Standard and whether we might be playing in a Tier Two Metagame. So I decided to do something you probably won't want to but might find interesting as a thought experiment.
For a week or so I only played this:
- 1 Bloodgift Demon
- 1 Borderland Ranger
- 1 Dawntreader Elk
- 1 Desecration Demon
- 1 Huntmaster of the Fells
- 1 Thragtusk
- 1 Thundermaw Hellkite
- 1 Vampire Nighthawk
- 1 Olivia Voldaren
To be fair, I cheated on the mana. I played four Farseek and four Rakdos Signet as well as a non-compromised land base. But the rest of the deck was laid out in a way that only Frank Karsten could love.
I don't think that you can really take seriously the idea that a singleton Jund deck is the best implementation of Jund. I certainly had to tighten up my play knowing that if I blew this Thragtusk or Slaughter Games, there wasn't another one in my deck to bail me out. I mostly made the deck as a Myelin builder; I might not have been exactly handicapped, but I didn't make it very easy on myself. At the same time, I ended up learning a whole bunch of interesting stuff about the format.
Shockingly, my win percentage didn't go down. I might have in fact won a little bit more than I had with my previous Jund deck. I attribute this to a couple of different factors. At the macro, it sort of anecdotally but not really scientifically validated the idea that most of the playable cards in the format are near each other in power level. You might not expect a whole lot of Bloodgift Demons or Desecration Demons in Jund, but especially in my maindeck, I doubt there is a single card that you would look at across the table and think of as being too weak to play in terms of abstract power level. More likely you would just wonder how I was able to fit, say, Tribute to Hunger...and then maybe get really worried about the life gain capability of a deck with Vampire Nighthawk and Huntmaster of the Fells and Thragtusk...and Tribute to Hunger.
The other thing is that if I had previously been locked into, say, all Dreadbores, I would never have been able to preempt a Hellrider with my one Searing Spear. The variance gave me the opportunity to win certain games, but the card quality overall was high enough that I didn't give up a lot of others. And as I said before, I played with a bit more focus because I had to; I had been playing semi-automatic Magic against, say, Bant. If my plan was to land two Slaughter Games and call it a day, well, that wasn't going to be possible here. So which was it? Thragtusk or Sphinx's Revelation? I must say I respected my own Thragtusk more and tanked every time I played a Slaughter Games.
What I really wanted to do with this Myelin builder was to look at the breadth of possible cards to play and maybe isolate some of the best ones. It probably doesn't surprise you that Searing Spear was pretty good! I liked drawing it over and over. Mizzium Mortars might have been my all-star, though; I always seemed to topdeck it when I was in trouble. I really, really liked reaching for Elderscale Wurm. Elderscale Wurm is not a sideboard card many of you have probably considered, but it is kind of a lockdown.
Is Thragtusk a better card than most other Jund options? Probably. But even using Thragtusk as our pivot, there is a precedent of aggressive decks willing to go to the five that don't play Thragtusk at all. Separately, I think you would have a hard time objectively concluding that Thragtusk is overwhelmingly better than Thundermaw Hellkite. Against Sphinx's Revelation decks, I was actually pretty happy to resolve Bloodgift Demon, probably happier than I would have been to hit a Thragtusk, and I must recount that as much as I winced playing that Demon against Rakdos, my opponents—probably because they didn't know they were up against a singleton deck—would immediately spend to cards on my flying 5/4.
For me, there was a little giggle in my soul every time I won. I am not always in the neener neener neener mood, but I certainly rocked back and forth to myself every time I took down some angle of The Deck to Beat. The most important thing that I learned was that the card values in Standard—even if, if you had a gun to my head, I would have to admit are not all even—are close enough in many cases that you don't lose a whole lot by shaving some for others and that you actually gain some unexpected value by having a less predictable answer suite.
This article is about belief structure. Everything that you actually do, the actions that you take, are all ultimately filtered through what it is you believe or think you believe. They say you can plop the Yale God Helmet on the soberest physicist, float some electricity through his brain, and he will spend the rest of his life believing in God; it might not necessarily make him a churchgoer, but he will have had a switch flipped and forever after his choices will be filtered through the exact opposite lens.
Or you can have two people, both reasonable in their individual ways; one can think that women are an oppressed class, and the other will think that women are a privileged class in the United States and actually have more rights and built-in bonuses than men. Both of these people will be able to rattle off "reasons" for their positions; you can't really "prove" either case objectively. Each might feel very passionately! My point here is to say that a reasonable person who believes that women are a privileged class, kind of men-plus in America, is going to come to some very different conclusions than someone with the complete opposite perspective.
Your decisions in Magic, from the weapon you choose before the day begins, the hands you keep, the plays you make, and the edges you do or don't collect on over the course of a tournament, are all filtered through your beliefs. Case in point, I can look at a hand of five lands and two Brainstorms—fed by some bad results historically—and say, "I don't think I would mulligan it, but that hand doesn't do anything," whereas EFro will look at the same and light up like a Christmas tree.
Here are some beliefs that I thought you might be swayed on from this article:
Knowing what the top card of your deck is awesome! You can obtain an incremental edge with a marked Mountain.… What I meant was "even a decorated Grand Prix Champion can gain value from taking the time to study his deck and work through its capabilities and limitations specifically." Worry more about making the right choices than being called "bush league" by your friends.
- There is more than one way to look at even seemingly interchangeable widgets. It is not always a question of pure power or individual efficiency, especially when you plan to do many things at once. If you were only siding in one life gain creature, maybe a Centaur Healer would always be better than a Rhox Faithmender, but when you are siding in seven or eight, perhaps a deeper exploration is appropriate.
- Not only are many otherwise unseen cards relatively close in power to format staples [right now], there are some hidden gems in the format that you can unveil with a little creative limitation. I am now overjoyed every time I see a player trumping Rakdos with Silklash Spider, but I probably wouldn't be if I hadn't "had" to try it myself.