Nerd Gamer Christmas

Posted in Latest Developments on May 11, 2012

By Zac Hill

Zac is a former game designer/developer for Wizards of the Coast and was the lead developer for Dragon's Maze. His articles have appeared in The Huffington Post, The Believer, and on Currently he serves as the chief operating officer of The Future Project, a nonprofit education initiative, and holds a position as a research affiliate in the MIT Game Lab.

The week or so before a Pro Tour has always been my favorite time of year. It's like nerd gamer Christmas, but with hundreds of thousands of dollars on the line!

You never know what you're going to find underneath the tree. Maybe it's an awesome sideboard strategy—like cascading into the same spell every turn, which we brainstormed for our five-color control deck at Pro Tour Honolulu 2009. Maybe it's finding that super-sweet kill card for an engine you already know is so painfully close to perfect, like Mirror Entity was in the "Elves!" deck that swept Pro Tour Berlin 2008. Maybe it's brewing up a whole new deck altogether, like the out-of-left-field Tooth and Nail Rock list that Marijn Lybaert, Bill Stark, and I piloted at Pro Tour Valencia 2007. One thing is for sure: despite all the time you've spent practicing and practicing and practicing, tuning and tuning and tuning, perfecting every single card in the deck you think you want to play, that last week always changes everything.

Watch the Coverage This Weekend

We're coming up on Pro Tour Avacyn Restored, and as you read this I'll be unpacking my bags in Barcelona as a member of the recently expanded coverage team. By the time I arrive, most of the world's top teams will have been in Spain for a week or more putting the finishing touches on their favorite decks and draft strategies. As a competitor, of course, you want to win. You want to be the person with the totally awesome format-defining list. You want to talk to Rich Hagon and Brian David-Marshall about how you dug up some obscure forgotten common to fill the last two slots in your sideboard, because it just blows away one of the best decks in the environment. But it's also awesome when you sit down across from a friend of yours who has worked even harder than you have, who has built an even better deck than you have, who has read the draft better than you've ever thought possible, and you realize that yeah, you're beaten—if only for today.

That's what most of those teams are going through as we speak: the eleventh-hour changes that can make or break a tournament.

From what I hear, a lot has changed since I left the Pro Tour to peek behind the curtain and team up with "the Man." Still, I'd wager that a lot has remained the same. The week leading up to the PT is one of the most intense periods in all of Magic, and so I want to take a step back and explore what players might be thinking about as they're trying to pick apart Avacyn Restored.

What's New?

Magic is really hard to understand. I am really, really glad our Multiverse records aren't public, because the amount of totally wrong things I've said about a card before I've played with it is embarrassing. Most of us have had a comparable experience to some extent, I think. I remember time and again at a Prerelease how many cards I thought were going to be bananas that just never took off, or how many Tarmogoyfs and Psychatogs and (yep, take a look at the archives) Skullclamps went completely unnoticed at first.

Call of the Herd | Art by Carl Critchlow

As such, a lot of the tendency in new environments is just to stick with what's already working. Some of this is practical: you only have so much time to playtest, after all, and any time you devote to a flawed idea is time that goes to waste. But some of this is an overemphasis on inertia, or an under-appreciation of how innovative your opponents are likely to be. My first Pro Tour—Pro Tour New Orleans 2001—came right after the release of Odyssey, which most players at the tournament (including myself) denounced as incredibly weak—that is, until Tomi Walamies and his Call of the Herd made a good show of proving us wrong. Similarly, when it comes to Limited, it's easy to miss how much of a difference one set can make. I remember Pro Tour Prague, when Dissension came out, and a lot of us were left dumbfounded by why our strategies weren't working. Selesnya Evangel and its ilk were some of the most powerful cards in Ravnica- Ravnica-Guildpact, but wound up largely being traps one set later in Ravnica-Guildpact-Dissension.

Call of the Herd

Because of that, it's easy to get ahead by taking advantage of new cards or interactions that put a hurt on existing strategies, and by adapting quickly to new environments. Does a certain new card exploit an existing weakness in one of the format's popular decks? Does another deck that was already strong against the popular decks get some tools that push it over the top? If you expect a lot of your opponents to spend their time trying to optimize the deck they've been drafting or playing for awhile now, you can hit them hard with new technology and punish them for it.

Conversely, you also want to look at existing decks that aren't quite good enough yet, and how the new set might give them a bit of a boost. Does some new card patch up a weakness in one of those decks, dealing with a problem the deck couldn't answer before? Can the new set give a deck another "angle," a whole different plan of attack? I'm reminded of the dominance of Huntmaster of the Fells a few months ago at Pro Tour Dark Ascension. The Wolf Run Ramp deck that Team ChannelFireball took to the finals was hardly an unknown quantity, but the addition of four Huntmasters let the deck jump into the driver's seat a lot earlier than it ever had been able to before. Decks that planned simply to attack Wolf Run's one or two big spells found themselves overwhelmed by a tide of threats they were totally unprepared for. Alternatively, the abundance of powerful two-drops turned Shards of Alara-Conflux-Alara Reborn into a blisteringly fast heavily aggro format—a far cry from the midrange tri-color dominance of Shards of Alara-Shards of Alara-Conflux.

Inkmoth Nexus

Finally—and this is perhaps the hardest challenge of all—you want to see if the latest set enables something completely new. "Rogue" decks—strategies that come from off the radar—are tricky to get right, but have the tremendous advantage of being able to catch your opponent totally unaware. If you've practiced a matchup hundreds of times but your opponent has never even seen your deck before, you're going to be making a whole lot more correct plays than he or she will. The deck that springs to mind for me in this vein is Sam Black's Pro Tour Philadelphia Blazing Shoal/Infect list, which could lead with nothing but a lowly Inkmoth Nexus and still easily kill the opponent on the second turn of the game. The cards weren't brand new, but the interactions were.

What's Old?

If you can trap yourself by not respecting the new cards in an environment enough, it's also very easy to trap yourself by thinking that you understand them too well.

Seedtime | Art by Rebecca Guay

Inevitably, certain new cards are heralded as format-defining and Earth-shaking when in reality they merely edge the environment in a certain direction. I can't count how many times some new card was lauded as "the death of (insert deck here)" only to prove little more than a minor annoyance. It sounds hysterical in retrospect, but Seedtime was supposed to just annihilate all of the Fact or Fiction decks by punishing them for casting spells on your end step. The card wound up being fine, but it's not like drawing a ton of cards at instant speed stopped being good, or anything.


The other phenomenon that comes up time and time again is that people always underestimate whatever "the best deck" is supposed to be—especially when it's kind of boring to play. In my experience, this can happen for a number of reasons. For one thing, because that deck has such a big target on it, people pack their decks full of cards specifically aimed at beating it. They figure out successfully how to do this, and they move on to testing other matchups. But then they start adjusting their decks to beat those other matchups and lose track of why they beat "the best deck" to begin with.

What happens even more frequently—and I myself do this all the time, even though you'd think I'd realize it by now—is that you get your entire team working on a new strategy that you fall in love with. You tweak it until you're sure that it beats the best deck and has great matchups against the rest of the environment as well. Yay! You've done it! Time to cash a check for forty grand! The problem is that while you've been working on that deck, you haven't been tweaking whatever your copy of the best deck happens to be at the same rate. Because of that, a lot of the time you will in fact succeed at beating all of the obsolete versions of the good decks, but will lose to players who have spent the same amount of time making the best deck even better.

The lesson to draw from that is obvious: Sometimes it's correct to play what you know already, even if you're sure people will be gunning for it.

An even more effective strategy is to occasionally dig up a deck that used to be good a while back but dropped off the radar for whatever reason. Maybe a new card came out six months ago that really punished the deck, or maybe it was so fragile that anyone gunning for it could beat it if they tried. You know what, though? Sometimes, people forget about Dre. Conditions change, and a deck becomes good again. The classic example here is when Team ChannelFireball unearthed the Tempered Steel deck from Scars Block Constructed to just tear a hole in Worlds 2011. The deck never really did much after that, but it was very well-positioned for that specific weekend.

Find a gem like that and you can turn a tournament on its head. Of course, these lessons apply a lot less stringently to Limited, since the packs you open are going to be different no matter what you do. Still, most of the decks that were good in triple-Lorwyn didn't magically become bad after Morningtide came out. You just had to learn to value things a little differently.

What's Good?

I just re-read everything I wrote, and I realized that despite all of my cute-sounding analysis I committed the same error that everybody always makes: at the end of the day, you have to play something that doesn't suck.

Avacynian Priest | Art by Greg Staples

I've talked a lot about formats, good decks, bad decks, matchups, environments, and all the rest. But it's so, so, so easy to get too caught up in all of that. You can think about it all you want, but you need to play a good deck, and not just justify playing a bad one.

I remember playtesting for Pro Tour Hollywood, and coming up with all of these Torrent of Souls decks that just had the awesomest draws on paper. I remember trying endlessly to make Giantbaiting/Bramblewood Paragon work, and a hundred million different lists with Tribal Forcemage and real winners like Uktabi Drake.

All of that was cute, but eventually my team made me come to my senses, and the deck we chose to play at the tournament was a very straightforward Faeries list featuring four copies of Thoughtseize in the main deck.

Avacynian Priest

Along those same lines, it's very easy to think about drafting as this complex mini-game of signals, predictions, color-assignments, "pass-cuts" (where you intentionally pass your neighbor a better card in the same color you intend to move into), and all of this other stuff that doesn't matter nearly as much as drafting a good deck. To use Innistrad-Dark Ascension draft as an example: yes, you want to know how to draft Gnaw to the Bone and Burning Vengeance and Curse of the Bloody Tome and all of that, but you also need to realize when you're getting passed a bunch of Loyal Cathars and Avacynian Priests and should attack for 2 points of damage over and over again until your opponent dies.

The Funk Soul Brother

Anyway, that's the kind of stuff I'd be thinking about were I still kicking it on the Pro Tour nowadays. What are people underestimating? What are people overestimating? And what's so good that it doesn't matter what people think about it to begin with?

I look forward to chatting with all the players this weekend—including a lot of my old teammates—and getting their takes on how the environment has played out. I can't wait to see how things shake out. I hope you get a chance to check us out, either here on or over at TwitchTV, to catch a glimpse of this weekend's Pro Tour action firsthand!

Thanks so much for reading,

Zac (@zdch)

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