On The Shoulders of Heroes

In PV’s initial pre-prerelease overview of the set, he noted that grindy midrange strategies looked like they would get outclassed by either the extremely aggressive or the extremely top-heavy builds, and it seems like he was probably right. It took me a while to get a grasp on things, but I feel like I’m now confident enough to dispense some advice, so here it is.

I’ve done two sealed events and six drafts in the format. These are the results. I’ll talk about what I learned below.

Sealed (chose blue): RG midrange, minimal removal – 2-2

Sealed (chose black): BG Whip self-mill, 3-2

Draft: RG midrange, minimal removal – 1-2

Draft: UG Tempo – 2-1

Draft: BG Deathtouch Grind – 0-3

Draft: RW Heroic Burn – 2-1

Draft: UG Haymaker – 3-0

Draft: UR Tempo – 3-0

Sealed (chose blue): RG midrange, minimal removal – 2-2

Who doesn’t love a good RG beatdown deck? This was pretty basic with a solid curve, a bunch of 3/3s, a few pump spells, and two Time to Feed as my only non-combat removal. I played three copies of the 4/5 snake for 5 at the top of my curve, along with a Polukranos and an Anger of the Gods (the Slagstorm).

The Good: My spells on their own were very powerful. The 4/5 reach was hard to get through, and keeping a constant stream of pressure was solid.

The Bad: I could typically only cast one spell per turn. If my opponent was ever able to remove my new threat, I fell behind quickly. Without any flexible removal, I was completely unable to deal with a creature bigger than mine.

The Lessons / Bitching: The biggest lesson here is that Underworld Cerberus returns all creatures to their owner’s hands. I had to trade three creatures to kill the one my opponent attacked with, and should have gotten them all back in my hand, but thought that it was only their creatures. Should have won that match, but now I learned and you have too!

My other loss was to Tuffy, who basically had a better version of my deck, running out bigger threats that I simply could not kill. I just don’t think my sealed strategy was very good, and I’d much rather run something weaker with better removal.

Sealed (chose black): BG Whip self-mill, 3-2

This was kind of a gimmick deck. I had a whip to go along with my black prerelease promo, and wanted to play with both. I loaded my deck up with two copies of Commune with the Gods, along with two of the 2/4 centaur for 3B that mills four when he comes into play. Those, along with two copies of Grey Merchant of Asphodel allowed me to stall out most games long enough to find my bombs and sail to victory.

The Good: Commune also let me find the Whip, so it was pretty easy to get my engine going. Once it did, it was almost impossible to lose.

The Bad: The real problem was mana. A lot of five- and six-drops meant that I wasn’t doing too much other than stall until things got going. I also had problems with fliers, though I could typically race them with either one of my bombs.

The Lessons / Bitching: Fuck that monstrous blue kraken. One of my losses came to an opponent who had two of them. I played the -1/-1 enchantment that stops them from making their guys monstrous on his first, only to have him untap and play a second. I couldn’t kill it, and it wiped my board. Decks like this really, really need Sip of Hemlock, as your stall plan only works out if your end game is absolutely better than theirs.

My other loss was to an opponent who had Elspeth, Underworld Cerberus, and Stormbreath Dragon, which he played back-to-back-to-back. I think my overall strategy was very good here, but it certainly isn’t better than the “play all the bombs” plan.

Draft: RG midrange, minimal removal – 1-2

I just can’t pass a 3/3 for three. This deck was filled with underwhelming guys and almost no removal. It was a lot more aggressive that my sealed deck though, so I thought I might have a good game.

The Good: RG aggro is one of the most consistent strategies. You almost always go two-drop, 3-drop, drop, drop, drop.

The Bad: You need to have all the right cards. It’s easy to have your opponent to just play a 4/5 or 5/5 and not be able to attack for the rest of the game. You really need the burn spells and pumps spells to push you through, but those are in pretty high demand.

The Lessons / Bitching: First loss was to PK who had double Fleecemane Lion and played one on turn two both games. That card alone was better than everything in my deck, and I couldn’t come close to keeping up.

My second loss was the real lesson. Moriyama played the UW 2/2 that gets a +1/+1 counter and lets you scry for one when it’s targeted. He played two ordeals over the next two turns and absolutely crushed me. This really showcased the power of heroic for me, turning temporary boosts into permanent threats.

From this point on, I had much more respect for the ability.

Draft: UG Tempo – 2-1

This one was a lot better than the previous. Instead of 2/1 tramplers I was playing 2/1 fliers, and could consistently put a clock on while bouncing threats.

The Good: Blue is awesome. It does everything I want to be doing in the format – attacking and bouncing my opponent’s threats. Blue green also gives you the 3/2 for 2G that can become unblockable for 2U. That guy isn’t amazing or anything, but evasion matters a whole lot when you’re bestowing all the time.

The Bad: My creatures were all pretty fragile, so it was difficult to come back from being behind. I couldn’t really produce any good blockers and just got run over by aggro.

The Lessons / Bitching: My one loss was to RW aggro, which I think is a phenomenal deck. It has the strong creatures, it has solid removal, it has great tricks. It does have a hard time dealing with midrange guys, since your removal relies quite a bit on dealing damage, but it’s very strong. I could have been better prepared to beat it with things like omenspeaker, but instead my draft gave me nine three-drops, while I only played five of them. A lot of wasted picks on my end.

Draft: BG Deathtouch Grind – 0-3

Double 1B 1/1 deathtouch, double G 1/1 deathtouch, double 3BG 4/3 gravedigger, Keepsake Gorgon, a few removal spells, a few Read the Bones, and some durdly guys.

The Good: I should have complete inevitability if the game goes on long enough. I can trade all my cheap deathtouch guys to hold off the early game, and then loop them with my gravediggers. I’ve got a few removal spells, and the card draw to make the game go long.

The Bad: My stuff is expensive so I’m only playing one spell per turn. If that one thing gets blanked, I’m in trouble. If it happens two or more turns in a row, I’m dead. I also need to make sure I draw a lot of mana, but too much means I just die.

The Lessons / Bitching: See “the bad,” above. I lost to fliers, I lost to aggro, I lost to tempo. There are just too many ways to get through some overcosted creatures. This was probably the turning point in the format for me though. I learned how good scry was, I learned how to control the tempo of the games, and I learned when the best time to pull the trigger on versatile spells was.

Draft: RW Heroic Burn – 2-1

I lost in the finals of this one to Lewk. Triple Lightning Strike, double Titan’s strength, Gods willing, Magma Jet, Portent of Betrayal (threaten) with a second in the board. Lots of swarmy guys, a Firedrinker Satyr, two of the 2/3 for 2R that gets +2/+0 and first strike when you scry (very good).

The Good: Pretty much everything. I had early aggression, tons of reach, and a lot of broken draws.

The Bad: You have to mulligan to an aggressive draw. There are just too many decks that can punish you if they’re still at 20 after turn three. I think this is one of the best archetypes in the format otherwise.

The Lessons / Bitching: Scry. Seriously. Scry. I know it’s been around forever, and I know we all love it, but holy shit is it good. There were tons of times when I’d just turn Titan’s Strength into a lava spike on turn two to make sure I hit my third land drop or a three drop, and it paid off big time. Late game digging is very important, and scry is the key to that.

Draft: UG Haymaker – 3-0

This one was another big durdle deck, with a bunch of big fliers and the 4/5 reach snake, but the real key was my two drops.

The Good: Double Omenspeaker held off the early game while making sure I could draw my big guys without flooding too much, double 1G cantrip that fixes mana ensuring I can cast everything, double Commune with the Gods ensuring that I found the right pieces when I needed them. I had a few guys who valued my devotion to green. The lifegain four drop ensured that I could regain early ground, the 2G rare was always huge on turn four or five. I basically just had a ton of scrying and mana fixing to make sure that every draw was smooth and powerful. Oh, and a Polukranos. Is that guy good?

The Bad: Not much. I assume I still have the same problem of getting blown out if a few of my late draws get blanked by removal, but I have solid protection from fliers, good defenses, and even draws.

The Lessons / Bitching: Bounce spells! I’m seriously beginning to consider that Voyage’s End might be the best common in the set. It saves your guys, blanks a lot of theirs, eats a lot of time, punishes people from going all-in, etc. Griptide is also great, of course. Watching people draw blanks a few turns in a row is also great when you’re scrying all the chaff away. Don’t undervalue scry 1!

Draft: UR Tempo – 3-0

This was just last night, so I remember it pretty clearly:

Double Voyage’s End, Lightning Strike, double Titan’s Strength, Griptide, Sea God’s Revenge (is that the name of the bounce three guys?), the bad FoF, and the enchantment that draws a card when a creature dies or it ETB. Creatures were double R 1/1 with heroic of make a 1/1 with haste, double Welkin Tern, double Wind Drake with bestow (sorry, too many names), double 3/4  flier for 3UU, double 2/3 for 2U that can shock for 2R, the 2/3 for 2R that gets +2/+0 and first strike when you scry, and the big hexproof sphinx that scrys 3 when you attack, the 1UR Covnivore, and an Omenspeaker.

Relevant SB was another Omenspeaker, a Spark Jolt, and two more of the 2/3 for 2U that can shock for 2R.

The Good: Holy moly. I lost one game to Josh between rounds, but the rest didn’t even feel close. I had so much board control and consistent pressure while scrying away the unneeded crap that it just ran like a machine. My damage flow was just better than most of my opponent’s, and my quad-bounce spell package ensure I could get through when it mattered. Sea God’s Revenge always just ended the game on the spot, and my fliers were a huge problem for everyone.

The Bad: I believe I was the only one playing aggressive blue cards, so I think this was kind of an outlier draft. Aggressive white or green decks could be a problem, as their guys tend to be a little bigger, especially if they can handle my largest threats.

The Lessons / Bitching: Lots of cheap spells go the distance. I feel like I cast more spells over the course of a game than anyone. I usually got to six mana, and then just put every land on the bottom of my deck for the rest of the game. I’d let my opponent activate monstrous, bounce their guy, and basically time stretch for 1U. I even got to Griptide one of Travis’s bombs in response to a search effect, which seemed like a huge blowout.

So far it seems like the aggressive strategies are best, but they’re also the easiest to build. It should be interesting to see how the format pans out once people are fighting for the best cards during the draft itself, and once we learn how to build the best control decks to contain the fast starts.

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Results Oriented

Note that this post is about my own data and what I learned from my history. It’s mostly just my personal insights, and probably won’t actually help you in any way unless you’re interested in doing something similar yourself.

Recently, a dude from the internet took a few lines of code written by Ben Peebles-Mundy and updated the user interface to develop Kavu.ru – a website that allows you to turn the giant slab of data from your Planeswalker Point history into something usable.

The system consolidates all of your information into simple, easy to digest bites that give a basic picture of how well you perform in a variety of categories. For example, the following is a selection from my results (I cut out a lot of chaff here, but you get the idea):

Overall Stats:
Overall record: 782-375-49
Win percentage ignoring draws: 67.588591

Booster Draft:
Overall record: 138-50-18
Win percentage ignoring draws: 73.404255

Standard:
Overall record: 233-116-11
Win percentage ignoring draws: 66.762178

Sealed:
Overall record: 174-100-8
Win percentage ignoring draws: 63.503650

Modern:
Overall record: 139-59-7
Win percentage ignoring draws: 70.202020

Extended:
Overall record: 42-22-3
Win percentage ignoring draws: 65.625000

Magic Team Grand Prix:
Overall record: 8-3-0
Win percentage ignoring draws: 72.727273

Friday Night Magic:
Overall record: 65-28-2
Win percentage ignoring draws: 69.892473

Magic Pro Tour Qualifier:
Overall record: 221-134-8
Win percentage ignoring draws: 62.253521

Magic Grand Prix:
Overall record: 76-43-1
Win percentage ignoring draws: 63.865546

So all of this is great, and it’s a good glimpse into your strengths and weaknesses, but by entering your data with some variables separated, you can get a much more interesting picture.

I decided to break my numbers down by year, but instead of working with calendar years, I chose block years. There are two main reasons for this decision:

1. It makes it easy to read results for specific formats, like Zendikar Draft or RTR Standard.
2. It’s very clean. My first event in the system was the Onslaught Prerelease. I took a break during Time Spiral and Lorwyn, and my first event back was the Shards Release. Also, there are only a few weeks until the next rotation. It all split up very well.

I left out draws. I don’t think they really say anything important, and the data is much easier to read without them. I also combined Modern and Extended into one category since they never overlap and they’re pretty similar.

Here’s the data:

All Std Ex/Md Draft Sealed FNM PTQ GP
ONS 22-27
44.89
9-10
47.36
2-6
25.00
11-11
50.00
2-6
25.00
MD5 38-39
49.35
20-13
60.60
9-8
52.94
7-11
38.88
7-5
58.33
1-2
33.33
CBS 23-13
63.88
6-4
60.00
14-7
66.66
3-2
60.00
11-5
68.75
RGD 47-26
64.38
40-19
67.79
7-7
50.00
12-4
75.00
4-3
57.14
TS 3-1
75.00
3-1
75.00
LMSE 1-2
33.33
1-2
33.33
Ala 235-149
61.19
34-25
57.62
14-8
63.63
152-93
62.04
35-23
60.34
26-12
68.42
30-25
54.54
7-2
77.77
ZEN 193-88
68.68
82-37
68.90
16-8
66.66
29-10
74.35
62-31
66.66
28-10
73.68
36-18
66.66
11-4
73.33
Scars 187-96
66.07
56-36
60.86
42-22
65.62
39-9
81.25
41-24
63.07
18-4
81.81
45-38
54.21
14-8
63.63
INN 305-148
67.32
88-49
64.23
55-23
70.51
73-26
73.73
66-33
66.66
41-20
67.21
80-46
63.49
33-19
63.46
RTR 274-123
69.01
78-29
72.89
84-36
70.00
24-13
64.86
64-39
62.13
4-2
66.66
96-50
65.75
37-19
66.07

Now we’ve got something to work with.

There’s a big gap right in the middle where i took a 20-ish month break. For the most part, that data is excluded. The single draft I did each year in that time isn’t going to provide any insight.

Let’s look at some more interesting years:

ONS – This one is sweet. I didn’t have a winning record in any format, which is okay because I was 15-16 at the time and was mostly playing at my kitchen table. I tagged along to a PTQ with an Elves-Biorythm deck at a time when people were playing Pernicious Deeds. It didn’t go well.

MD5 – This is when I first started playing at my local shop. I had a winning draft and standard record, mostly because my town had something like 15 regular players, none of whom had ever played outside my suburb.

CBS – My first year of college. Not much going on.

RGD – I played my fair share of drafts at Mayhem in Ames, and a few during my summer back on the east coast. I didn’t know any of the good players from Ames, but they weren’t around very often so the events were easy. At the end of this year I sold my collection and got out of the game.

Alara – I won the release event for Shards of Alara, taking home a box. I then proceeded to do something like 40 drafts off the winnings from that box alone. You’ll note that I performed worse this year than during RGD, and I mostly attribute this to hanging out with the better players, who started crushing me on a daily basis.

ZEN – Fortunately, a good crushing is healthy, and all the lessons i learned in the past year started paying off. I moved to Cedar Rapids, which was a much softer environment than Ames, leaving me free to tromp the domains with all my newfound skills. I got better in pretty much every format, and actually had my best PTQ season record, despite only having two or three top8s across the whole year.

Scars – I took a big hit, likely for two reasons – One: I hated the sealed format. Drafting was awesome, but I got crushed in back-to-back-to-back-to-back sealed PTQs. And two: I chose not to play Cawblade when there was an option to play Cawblade. You can see how that went.

INN – A big change happened this year – Planeswalker Points. That meant i was drafting more, FNMing more, etc. I also had my fair share of shitty GPs, including my 0-5 at GP Indy.

RTR- The numbers show this as my best win-rate, and it certainly feels like it. Best standard win rate overall which makes sense given my past season. I went down a little bit in quite a few categories though. Sealed in this format was a lot harder than Innistrad. My prereleases also didn’t go well, contributing to my drop in that field. I did significantly fewer drafts outside of our team events.

I also want to note that my win rate in Modern is more than 70% and I’ve never top8’d a modern PTQ, even across more than a dozen events.

A few charts to show my progress.

This is my total win rate over time. I cut out those two years where i played seven total matches. Both creeping upwards and stabilizing, which makes me optimistic.

PTQ win rate, which is all over the place. If i had taken the Scars season more seriously, I think i’d have much better numbers overall.

Standard looks very similar to my PTQ rate in recent years, but had a much easier start, as should be expected.

My draft numbers have trended downwards, which i’m going to blame on drafting with better people in real events. I repeatedly got crushed in GTC and DGR events, so I’m looking forward to turning these numbers around in the next few months.

This song is the nuts:

Four Lessons I Wish I Learned Years Earlier

Everything we absorb has to hit us at the right time in order to have a real impact, whether it’s an album that seems like shit until your fourth listen or a sick play that we don’t quite understand until we see it in the right context. A lot of these lessons might seem super obvious, but I remember a time when they weren’t that clear to me, and I wish I had gotten wind of them earlier.

I still see a lot of players making these mistakes, and in my worst moments, I still make them too. That said, they’re important things to learn and remember, whether you’re an endboss or an ambitious pawn.

If you can’t play around it, don’t play around it. (AKA, sometimes you have to die for your dragon)

Man, realizing that there was a time I didn’t do this is kind of embarrassing.

The day I learned this lesson was at a 4-man cube draft in my apartment in Ames. I’m pretty sure the other three people were Matt Hansen, Scott Bielick, and Nick Crumpton. During one of our games, I didn’t want to attack with one of my guys because I was dead to a swing back if my opponent had a removal spell. Matt pointed out to me that my opponent was mono-red, and since I were at two life, if they had a removal spell we were dead no matter what! Of course!

There are a lot of situations where you just can’t win no matter what you do if your opponent hits a bonfire, or has an abrupt decay, or a mind control for your dragon, or one of any other thousand things. If you can’t beat those cards, just erase them from the equation and make your game plan into killing them before they hit. Of course, if there is a game plan that beats something you think they might have, it’s almost always the right choice, but we’ll get to that much later.

Dying for your dragon is the same thing. Lets say you have a counterspell in hand, and your opponent is trying to kill your dragon (choose your favorite dragon, they all work). In your mind, you don’t want to counter the removal spell because your opponent might have a big threat in hand. Unfortunately, your deck is short on win conditions, and you’ll have to spend a lot of time digging for another way to win. If you can’t reasonably win the game without that dragon, counter the spell! That dragon might be your only hope of killing them, so sometimes you have to take a chance and accept that you might have to die to protect him. He’d do it for you.

Just because you CAN do it, doesn’t mean you SHOULD do it.

HOLY CRAP do I see this one a lot from inexperienced players.

Unsummon your opponent’s guy on turn two to save a little damage. Seven turns later your best threat is locked under a pacifism and you just can’t figure out how you lost the game. This one is especially popular with newer players, who just love slamming spells (and really, who can blame them? Doing stuff is the best!) and haven’t quite figured out that, just like in real life, long-term gains are much more impactful than short-term.

I learned this one by watching one of the best matches of all time. The finals of Pro Tour Kyoto in 2009. LSV vs. Nassif. This match has about a hundred sweet plays, some of which pan out over dozens of turns with incredible setups and amazing bluffs. And all of it was way over my head when I watched it on the live stream.

What I did catch was something much simpler. There’s a turn when LSV attacks with a few tokens. Nassif has a Volcanic Fallout in hand, but he immediately passes priority, taking a couple of damage. I was so confused. . . why would Nassif not just kill his team and take nothing from the creatures? Post-combat, LSV makes a few more tokens and Nassif sweeps up his entire army, effectively negating LSV’s entire turn for just a few points of life.

My mind was blown. Nassif knew that something else was coming, but how did he know this?

It was easy – something else is ALWAYS coming! Instead of just spending his removal spell because it was convenient, he planned ahead, kept his options open, and pulled the trigger when it was a huge blowout instead of a one-for-one trade.

We know that life is a resource, and that cards are a resource, but having options is also a resource. When Nassif casts that Fallout, that’s it. He never has the option to cast it again. When he doesn’t cast it, he enters another phase where he once again has the option. The longer he keeps it, the more options he will have.

Of course, it’s not always right to just keep your cards forever. You should probably bolt the turn one llanowar elves, and you should probably tragic slip that champion of the parish, but that’s because we can anticipate how those games will play out, and we know that against the most aggressive decks, those life points have a much bigger impact on the amount of options we have. When we have zero life, we also have zero options.

Don’t assume your opponent is an idiot until you have proof.

I used to do this all the time. I’d just look at the board and see a play that was really sick if my opponent messed up. Recognizing when this will work is an important skill, but it’s not something you should just assume will happen. Nowadays I just do my best to play as though my opponent will make the right moves until I have some proof that they won’t.

Maybe they’ve forgotten about a piece of equipment that’s been shoved off to the side of the table, or maybe we’ve seen that they’re willing to chump block on turn two just to save two life. Either way, you need to know exactly how their mind works before you start playing mind games.

Once that happens you can go all-in, but constantly making the second-best play because it’s better if your opponent is worse than you is a good way to prove that they’re not.

I don’t think there was a single moment when I learned not to make that mistake, but it was something that I just had to pick up after dozens of failures.

If you think your opponent might have a card, there’s a good chance that they do.

It’s mid-game and you’re ready to move to blocks. In the back of your head, you wonder what’s going to happen if they have a Ghor Clan Rampager. Nah, there’s no way they have that, you think, and make a block that puts you far behind if they’re lucky enough to have one in hand.

Of course, they do have it. They’re so lucky. Every time you think they might have it, they do.

Well guess what? The reason you think they might have it is because they’re playing in a way that telegraphs the card. Even though you may not be actively noticing it, you’re picking up on context clues that tell you what cards are likely in their hand. If you suddenly think “oh no, what if he has it?” it’s likely because he’s been setting it up for a while now and you’ve finally assembled enough evidence to put the puzzle together.

If a card pops into your head, start thinking back to the last few turns. Was there a better time than now that they could have used it? If not, it’s time to start playing around it if you haven’t done so already.

I don’t remember exactly what the moment was that I learned this one, but i’m pretty sure I got it from Scheel, who is so good at knowing what’s on the next page of your book because he was always paying attention throughout the last chapter.

That’s it for now!

(I put a video link in my first post, and I think i’m going to keep doing it. Here’s what I’m listening to today: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=iTfB8Q6DpZ0 )