A Framework

Posted in Feature on May 10, 2007

By Mike Flores

Michael Flores is the author of Deckade and The Official Miser's Guide; the designer of numerous State, Regional, Grand Prix, National, and Pro Tour–winning decks; and the onetime editor-in-chief of The Magic Dojo. He'd claim allegiance to Dimir (if such a Guild existed)… but instead will just shrug "Simic."

Wistful_ThinkingOne of the things that I really enjoy about Magic, and possibly the single most important element of the game as it exists as a serious entity (let us say subject) in my reality, is how closely its key elements mirror "real life" civilian existence. Really, Magic is the perfect microcosm. We worship success over greatness. Those who can execute well are comparatively few. Mathematicians are rewarded a million times more than "people persons"... yet the power of computers and their ability to replicate data limits the advantage of innovation to narrow windows; this is where execution shines. We hold the tenets we "learn" early in our development close to our hearts, like security blankets or over-washed teddy bears, like the lies our parents fed us as children; we affix ourselves onto familiar ideas like leeches and resist even positive change. Ultimately, there is a great divide between the Dominaria we want to exist and imagine exists (or even the one that R&D wants or imagines to exist) and the one that economics dictates for us.

This is not to say that it's all pointless and terrible! As with real life, there are singular moments, of joy or brief understanding, that shine up and out and cause us to remember why it's all worth it. It's maybe eleven o'clock at night. You've just won a tournament after a dozen hours of grueling blue mana. It becomes difficult to reason what to do next. Do you have another opponent? Maybe you should have... Wait! You've already hit the terminus, guy. You can't actually do any better; not today. Your eyes open a little wider, despite the hour, and for a minute... you forget about mana screw. Break out the Skullmead Cauldron! Everything's first-turn Jackal Pups and second-turn Wastelands, at least through dinner. You forget all about the horrors of mana screw (especially every mana screw your opponents had on the way to your smashing victory, if you're anything like YT, Mr. Conquering Hero). Victory is learning how to ride a bike, playing catch with your dad on a Saturday afternoon, intertwining your sweaty fingers with those of the homecoming queen, and your first paycheck all rolled into one.

Magic is like a vast computer program, just as the real world is. The universe is this massive Legend of Zelda dungeon, learning, becoming more difficult as you level up. You find loot around some corners, get fat on Red Potions, find your shield cracked and your butt kicked on a semi-regular basis. That's. Life. You even die at the end. But you learn, too, just like the computer does. For all the brassy coronets you have stuffed in your sock drawer next to Top 8 pins, for all the memories of face-smashings and fourth-turn perfects, winning is ass when it comes to the accumulation of knowledge. Losing is where it's at. Just like in life.

Life teaches you not to French kiss electrical sockets.

Life teaches you that—yes—there are some things that are maybe too tall to jump off of.

Life teaches you that while every growing boy appreciates a mite of poking and prodding, you stick something a little too far in your ear and... well... You don't do it again (at least for a few minutes). Ouch.

Magic is like that. Winning all the time is for losers. Losers have no fun. Losing, ironically, is the best. For learning. Which makes you a... loser? Ironic.

One of those loser-ly moments of perfect clarity fell on me in the winter or spring of the end of the twentieth century. Magic is like life, you see, and there are moments that you will never forget, like the first time you made out with a girl (where you learned it wasn't actually that hard) or the dead throbbing of your left front tooth after your first black eye (where you learned that maybe you shouldn't be trying to strangle things twice as big as you in the caddie yard). By 1999, I had all but given up ever playing on the Pro Tour again, despite the fact that I had only ever played on it twice. I probably would not be writing this article, except that Chris Pikula convinced me to journey to some Detroit PTQ hours and hours away through roads cut out of snow banks taller than you are. The format was triple Urza's Saga draft. I got there.

So Chris and I road-tripped to Pittsburgh and the legendary "O" to prepare for Saga-Saga-Saga with the best players on the eastern half of the United States and probably the world at that point. All the legends (that work at Wizards now) were there. Buehler. Lauer. Turian. Brian Schneider, not qualified (as was his custom) was unbeatable (as was his custom). The Deadguys were all there... Not just Chris, but Worth and Finkel. I don't remember if Pat Chapin was there (but his perennial ride, Eric "Danger" Taylor, was), and I can't imagine Finkel made the trip without the OMS brothers... To give you an idea of how epic the playtest session was, probably half of the eventual Pro Tour Top 8, including first through third, were drafting as guests of Team CMU.

I was obviously out of my depth. I think that I went something like 2-7 in the first three drafts, you know, so I'd be in the same pods as like Nate Heiss, Dinosaur Taylor, and Aaron Forsythe. I was always forced out of the good colors, so at one point, I drafted this mono-green deck. Here's where the learning comes in:

I was convinced it was a very good deck.

It was "good" in the sense that it was all these green cards that would generally "make the cut" in a draft deck. You know, a lot of 3/3 creatures for ; some fatties. Green. I bageled that one good. Zippity three count, with an exclamation point from edt in the last round for donkey rights. I didn't get it. Wasn't my deck good? Isn't it the definition of a good draft to have all good cards? Cards you prioritize? Cards that you pick? These cards are good in the abstract. (When you're green) you always play them. No marginal stuff. No filler. (This was the point, by the by, where Brian Weissman and others were actually publishing that green was the second best if not best color in triple Saga... It was actually like the fourth best color.)

I was just at the wrong table.

"Any other table..." I complained to Chris. "This deck would be 2-1 or 3-0 somewhere else."

It's a shame that Chris wasn't first-class Hall of Fame. He has his own card that everyone loves. He was the best storyteller in the business. He was the first one to break out in poker, before poker was cool. He has a thin roll of Top 8s, and reminded us with Deadguy Ale last year that he still has it. Chris is also one of the people who taught me that "good at math" is basically synonymous with "good at life." Despite being a flimsy vegetarian, he has an advanced degree in physics. He rolled his eyes and shook his head at my "somewhere else" hee-haw.

"What you have," he informed me, "is the definition of a bad deck."

You see, dear reader, there is no such thing as some other table. It took me years to realize this, to extrapolate the knowledge of one bad draft into a working web of interchangeable building blocks. Magic is a game that exists in the moment. Each individual game sits in a specific time and place and is subject to wild swings and unexpected directions based on particular individual decisions. It is like a well- or poorly written stage play. Everything matters... well, maybe except for that... but don't do it (that) again.

There is no other table. You play at the table you were assigned. You have a lot of playables? Great. This game, each pick, exists as part of a greater vector. There is no number in the abstract. If you get passed an ostensible jack, you can bet it's because the guy ahead of you plucked a queen. Everything is context. Forty or sixty? White Weenie or five-color? Play Sulfur Elemental or lose to it?

Pestilence, Pestilence, CorruptMy "good" green cards might have been good somewhere else, but I wasn't somewhere else. I was playing at a table with a dozen copies of Pestilence and a count half over of Corrupts. There were probably more Arc Lightnings than playable green commons. They say the worst hand at a hold 'em table is the second best hand. When you're "mono-green playables," you basically have "fish" stapled to the back of your Oxford / polo.

That part was the easy part. Chris took the thirty seconds or so to explain my 0-3 to me; it took me considerably longer to absorb what he was trying to teach. It's been eight years; I'll summarize: of course my deck was bad. Not good enough at that table is the same as just plain "not good enough." There are great decks and there are lousy decks... But at a weak table, a deck of slightly weaker picks will often 2-1 or 3-0 in the hands of a master. All great cards can be beaten by more-than-all great cards, greater cards, or just a good matchup on the colors. There is no good deck in the abstract in Magic. You probably wouldn't be indicted for thinking that way, but trying to formulate an argument exclusive of the shifting elements around you is tantamount to "goo goo ga ga" in a room full of bachelors.

The harder part is drawing real and lasting meaning from this particular shortfall. There are articles and forum posts that stick in my mind. I forget writing articles that get great or terrible reviews on a weekly basis, but I will sooner forget the first of several deliciously forbidden co-ed slumber parties the spring of my senior year of high school than The Great Debate Concerning the Orthodoxy of 60 Card Decks by Robert A.C. Nanka-Bruce, one-time front-page article on The Dojo (this was a big deal at one time... just ask Kai Budde), and probably the worst article in the history of a game plagued by terrible articles. Another is a random forum post to an article I wrote on this site last August, All the Little Things... Don't bother looking for it. There was a forum upgrade so the post is gone, but it's burned into my gray matter, right next to the New Year's party where I first worshipped porcelain and almost squashed my best friend's golden retriever by falling out of his dad's La-Z-Boy.

Illusions of Grandeur
The poster argued that Scott McCord's Trix was not, as I had claimed "basically the scariest deck in the history of Magic: The Gathering." Didn't I pay attention to tournament coverage on my own site? Why, the year's Vintage Championships had just been reported by Teddy Card Game. Surely any of these decks, full of Moxes and Lotus of every stripe, were scarier.

That analysis was a little immature, not far from my "good green cards" at a table full of better black. I'd actually hazard a guess that full-on Trix would have a fair time against even the best Vintage decks. Which of them gets to play four copies of Necropotence, Mana Vault, and (potentially) Vampiric Tutor? That's not the point, of course: Ultimately, the big issue is that most of the leading Vintage decks approach the same limits. They play the same restricted cards. Which is scariest is a question of Smokestack or Tendrils of Agony? Goblin Welder or Gifts Ungiven? Lock or Storm, they both suck. Yes, these decks can do things, some of them scary, but it is much harder to pinpoint which is the scariest. The reason? They have, largely, all the same broken cards in common. In the vast card pool of Vintage, even if you can call one deck the tournament champion, it is not clear by how much that deck exceeds the other possibilities in margin, or if it even does. If you accept that Vintage players understand how to play Magic—or at least their format—at even the tiniest level of competence, how else can you explain the fact that a largely static format played fairly often has all different decks winning from tournament to tournament?

Compare to Trix: What other deck gained 20 life in the middle of a two-card kill combo? Trix played all the best cards of its era (something that basically only it did)... Dark Ritual, Duress, Force of Will, Mana Vault, and of course Necropotence... Lined up side by side with other decks of its era, no rival could compare to it on pure power, or on the resilience of its execution. Not a one. Trix was something special many times over. This was history's finest Necropotence deck and very likely the game's best ever Force of Will deck. Remember, you have to compare candidates with rivals at their respective tables. Otherwise you might as well be comparing Limited decks from entirely different blocks (while it might be a curious exercise, my guess is this would not be helpful to you). As crazy as it seems, you would probably be surprised at results between Limited and Constructed decks heads up. At Pro Tour–Los Angeles 2000, I had a blue-green draft deck that I quite liked and made Dave Price play his Hatred deck against me (only deck we had on hand). Dave was coming off a Grand Prix Top 8, but I actually won the majority of games with my blue-green draft deck, if you can believe it. Rishadan Footpad blocks Phyrexian Negator... and gets Invigorated. So does Vine Trellis! St00pid Phyrexian Negator... Why would you play that? You can't really compare the two decks. One was a Mercadian Masques-Nemesis draft deck. One was an Extended Constructed deck. One went 2-1 in the second draft of a Pro Tour Day 1. One made Top 8 of an Extended Grand Prix. For sure, Dave's deck was better in its format and what we would call "a better deck," but Dave was set up to attack creature-poor Oath decks or race Trix, not fight fast green drops backed up by free Giant Growths.

Vine Trellis
In context, a 4/8 Vine Trellis is a one-sided Jokulhaups. It might seem silly in the abstract... But so does Boros Swiftblade and Gaea's Might. The essence of choosing the best possible deck is positioning yourself in such a way that you are attacking the opponent, all the opponents, at an angle where known decks are uncomfortable rather than chugging towards the same target as everyone else in the room. When you aspire to sameness, not only do the predators know what to throw at you, but even when you make your hand, you're not making one that is any better, necessarily, than a competent opponent on the other side of the table.

I eventually learned is that there is no conceptual difference between Limited and Constructed deck design. It's just a question of scale. Block Constructed is just a draft with more and better packs opened; Standard is just Block with an extra Block tacked on. The same holds up through Extended, Legacy, and even Vintage. Metagames are supposed to fuction at various levels. However metagames break down when you pull decks out of their "draft tables" and plop them down into the middle of different ones, even smaller ones. Think back to my Invigorated 2/2 for four versus Dave's Phyrexian Negator... Have you ever looked at a Vintage Top 8 deck with Icatian Javelineers or Stormscape Apprentice knowing that it would have a terrible matchup with, say, the average Standard Boros deck, and wondered how it could ever compete in a field ten times as grand in scale? The answer is that that deck isn't geared towards beating a Standard Boros deck, or any kind of creature deck for that matter, and in fact disregards a lot of the queues that bind together varying or smaller metagames.

A common mistake that we made early in the history of Block Constructed was—when we didn't know what the format was going to look like—to play Block decks versus the Standard decks we had lying around. "If I can beat that, surely I can beat Deadly Insect!" In fact, it means nothing. Each format has its rules for metagaming... Imagine testing Mirrodin Block Affnity to Standard Tooth and Nail from the following Champs. Affinity might look really great as poor the Tooth and Nail doesn't have main deck Oxidize. Which says nothing about its ability to win in the format that it is supposed to.

Tooth and Nail
All of this comes together in a roundabout way to saying that if you want to pick the best possible deck for a tournament, there is only one objective you can realistically optimize to. I have long held that the idea that there is an objective best deck for an entire format as naïve; when we use this kind of language seriously, it has to be shorthand. The reason is that even if there is a deck that can sustain performance over many tournaments, like Loam in the last Extended PTQ season, that doesn't necessarily mean that it ensures positive expectation, and anyway, it is probably never actually the right deck to play if you want to maximize your chances, mathematically, of winning the tournament, even if it is the best deck anyone else knows about. Interestingly, we have had formats where huge percentages of very skilled fields chose a deck like Tooth and Nail, to varying numbers of Tooth and Nail in the Top 8. When Tooth and Nail has zero copies Top 8, we can clearly point at it and say that the deck under-performed, but what about when there are, say, four copies in the Top 8? Is Tooth and Nail the best? If the Swiss field was 70%, then four copies isn't actually good enough, especially if the deck doesn't walk away champion.

Even though it is a convenient way to discuss deck lists in this forum, I would caution you against basing your suppositions about a format solely on the raw number of a particular archetype across Top 8s (that is why I highlight the first place decks and bias my charts differently than Frank does). Over time, formats adapt to their "best decks," and circumstances make it difficult to win with them. There have been a couple of Internet writers talking about Pro Tour–Yokahama over the past week or so, and how White Weenie was the best going in... but that it maybe had too much time germinating on Magic Online. We all know how that turned out. What I think we want to aspire for is to try to be the guy behind the sixty cards that are, as Raphael Levy put it in Yokahama, "most adapted deck to the format." This is a bit riskier than going with the flow, it can be uncomfortable... and it is harder, too, to keep up with trends and make the right decisions concerning a moving target on a moving object. Heck, you end up summoning Browbeat.

But when you get your deck selection right, it's infinitely more rewarding.

Just like in real life.

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