Topical Blend #1: Near-Death Experience Experience

Posted in Reconstructed on April 2, 2013

By Gavin Verhey

When Gavin Verhey was eleven, he dreamt of a job making Magic cards—and now as a Magic designer, he's living his dream! Gavin has been writing about Magic since 2005.

Two weeks ago, I put up two polls, one with ten options for a Magic deck-building topic, and another with ten options for an entirely non-Magic topic. The end result? I'm going to take the top voted topic in each category—then find a way to talk about both of them in one article.

Ready to see the results? Check it out!

>> Click to Show
Magic Topics
Bad Deckbuilding Habits 1142 28.9%
Building Beatdown Decks 127 3.2%
Building Control Decks 305 7.7%
Choosing a Deck for a Tournament 223 5.6%
Fighting the Metagame 399 10.1%
Improving Decks through Playtesting 406 10.3%
Manabases 264 6.7%
Making Decks with Cards from a New Set 263 6.7%
My Favorite Decks of All Time 530 13.4%
Sideboarding 290 7.3%
Total 3949 100.0%
Non-Magic Topics
Adventures around the World 233 6.0%
Creative Writing 362 9.3%
Dealing with Losing 497 12.8%
Doctor Who 745 19.2%
Favorite Movie/TV Scenes 297 7.6%
Internet Memes 571 14.7%
My Childhood 34 0.9%
My Mom 150 3.9%
My Non-Magic Friends 222 5.7%
Times I've Come Closest to Dying 772 19.9%
Total 3883 100.0%

All right: so, bad deck building habits combined with times I've come closest to dying.

This should be interesting.

Near-Death Experience #1

It was finally the day most teenagers live for: the day you begin learning how to drive.

I was fifteen years old and I was planning to take a class to get my driver's permit over the swiftly approaching summer. I needed to know the basics, so my mom decided to start me off in the way I'd guess that many of us learned: in a parking lot.

She drove us to a nearby school on a weekend. Nobody was there, so the parking lot would make for the ideal driving space. It was the perfect driving space. Well, except for maybe one tiny detail she may have overlooked...

We swapped sides, and I was in the driver's seat for the first time. We quickly went over all of the functions of the car. Then it was finally time. I put on my seatbelt, turned on the ignition, checked the mirrors, and began my first task: backing out of the parking spot.

The first part went well. I put the car into reverse and cleared the two white lines.

"Okay, Gavin, great! Now let's try driving forward."

So, with only a fledgling understanding of the pedals I jammed on the gas.

With the car still in reverse.

In most parking lots this wouldn't be a problem. Here, it was deadly.

You see, to get to this school, you had to drive up a long, winding hill. It was a nice school; the rooftop was trimmed with white and the rooms with little windows that made it look like a homely cottage. It had a gorgeous view the students could take in as they took classes. The downside of all this, however, is that the school was positioned right on the edge of a cliff.


A cliff we were headed straight for at several miles per hour.

My mom yelled at me, "HIT THE BRAKES, HIT THE BRAKES!" I yelled back, "I'M TRYING, I'M TRYING!" as I futilely hit the gas pedal more and more.

In panic, I looked over at her. It was only a glance, but the sight of her eyes still gives me shivers today—I can see it clearly. My mom is a strong woman—she had been through the army in the 70s, has a pain tolerance so high that she's been hit by a baseball and shrugged it off, and was a nurse for so long that the sight of blood didn't cause her line of sight to budge. And, for the first and only time in my entire life, I saw pleading in her eyes. That kind of cosmic "don't let us die here" look, mixed with a hint of tears and absolute fear. It's the kind of look I imagine someone would get when they have a gun pointed at them. Her eyes were trembling.

Then, all in a split second, I looked down and tried to figure out where to put my foot. I slammed my foot down on the other pedal and hoped it would be enough.

With a screech, the car stopped.

I exhaled. It had only been a handful of seconds—maybe seven seconds at most—but it had been the most frightening seven seconds of my life.

I turned off the engine just to be sure, and walked around to the back of the car to see how close we were.

The answer was mere feet from the ledge.

For all my future driving lessons, we would end up going to a different parking lot.

What does this have to do with deck building at all? Click here to find out.

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First, Learn How Something Works

It's a great dream to go straight from apprentice to master. All of the steps in between are just added time, and if you can fast-track the process, that's great.

Most of the time, though, it's just incredibly dangerous.

We all like to think we know what we're doing, that we habitually make the right decisions and that the neurons that fire off in our brain that tell us we're right aren't just making things up. However, when it comes to something brand new, the reality is we just aren't equipped with enough information to make informed decisions.

I'll give an example. Something I see time and time again are players taking a deck they haven't played—perhaps a deck that just won a Pro Tour—and the first thing they do is make modifications to it. Without any frame of reference for what's important, without a single game, it's time to go straight onto the operating table.

It's hard to make beneficial changes without first learning what makes something tick. I wouldn't hire a drama major to perform open-heart surgery. Similarly, I'd say a player who doesn't know the ins and outs of Sam Black's newest masterpiece isn't going to make optimal changes to it.

Another common instance of this is taking that same brand new deck, taking it straight into a tournament with little to no playtesting, and then labeling the deck as "bad" if it goes poorly. This can not only create a bad experience for you, but it can also accidentally warp your view of the format. You might think a deck is no good—but maybe it just wasn't good because it didn't have an experienced pilot!

I imagine proximity-to-fifty-foot-fall behind you isn't something you really consider when you've been driving for a while. But when handing the reins over to a newcomer, it was perhaps not the best starting position.

On the same note, the top players aren't considering how good a deck is when you've played it five times—they're looking at how good it is when they've played it a hundred times.

One more example of this can commonly be seen in sideboarding. All too often I see people actually make their decks worse when sideboarding with a deck they're unfamiliar with. If you don't know which cards to remove and which to put in, you're taking a larger and larger risk the more and more you sideboard.

Before getting behind the wheel of a deck, take the time to learn where its pedals are. It might just save you from taking a fall.

Near-Death Experience #2

As a young boy in Seattle in the 90s, I couldn't help but be a huge sports fan. It didn't hurt that my father shared my sports-loving enthusiasm. He had shared season tickets to the Seattle Mariners for years—and after years of suffering through poor finishes, the Mariners were finally about to hit their prime.


It was a miraculous season. The team played to their outs, rattling off game after game like a PTQ player in the X–2 bracket who still believed he or she had an outside shot. Nobody else thought they could make it... but they did.

They were down eleven and a half games with just over thirty days left in the season. (For reference, the way baseball standings work, you have to win and the team in first has to lose for you to go up a game.) The Mariners proceeded to make one of the most dramatic comebacks in major league history by winning twenty-five of their last thirty-six games—all while the other teams in the league began to slide.

When the dust settled, the Mariners ended up tied for first—and then, in Brad Nelson and Guillaume Matignon Player-of-the-Year style, had to play a tiebreaker game to determine who would advance to the playoffs. They won, advancing to the playoffs for the first time ever.

While they didn't end up winning the World Series, the playoffs were still remarkable. There was even a single at-bat that became the Craig Jones Lightning Helix of Seattle baseball—it's so famous it even has its own Wikipedia page! The feeling in Seattle was absolutely electric.

So when basketball season started up and the Seattle Supersonics hit a blazing start (they would finish the season at an insane 64–18, eventually losing in the NBA Championship) my dad and I had to get tickets. Seattle sports had been on too much of a roll.

So, on one frigid day in January, we ventured out to the Key Arena to watch the Sonics play. The game itself was great—but what happened afterward, not so much.

We were walking back after the game. It was far past my bedtime, and the air was so cold that my breath was freezing on my lips. Both of us were eager to get back to the car and get home, so my dad proposed a new plan.

"Let's take a shortcut. It'll be faster."

"Where's the shortcut, Daddy?"

"We just cut across the fountain."

One of the highlights of Seattle Center is the International Fountain, built back along with the Space Needle for the World's Fair. They basically dug a huge hole in the ground and put a gigantic, thirty-foot-wide metal fountain inside. It fires water around at all 360 degrees and can reach heights of up to 120 feet. In the summer, fall, and spring, it's turned on, and the water spurts dances to the tunes of Beethoven while kids in the steep basin next to it run betwixt the water.


But in the winter, it's dormant. It doesn't turn on, except for a few routine checks here and there.

We approached the edge of the basin, walking into it and taking a few slippery steps. The concrete had a thick sheet of ice on top of it, caused by the water the fountain had shot earlier in the day freezing over. The entire thing was essentially one gigantic skating rink—a skating rink positioned at a 65° incline.

We gripped each other's hands. "Be careful, Gavin."

Famous last words, I suppose. I took one more step forward and felt my tiny foot slide against the icy floor.

Suddenly, I was flat on my back, looking up at the night sky. I could feel my father's hands tangled up in mine—he too had fallen—and then I felt the wind, that rushing wind, and my body twirling and swirling on the ice downward and downward like some kind of psychotic hockey puck moving at driving speeds headfirst for a hockey stick—a gigantic metal hockey stick: the fountain.

I saw it out of the corner of my eye. I tried to brace for impact as best I could. And then everything went black.

After black, the next thing I saw was crimson.

Blood was everywhere, all over my body. I was looking up, right into my father's face, as he trudged forward with me in his arms. His face caked with blood as well—a mix of both of ours, I suppose—but by some miracle he had managed to walk up and out of the fountain with me in his arms. I could tell this was many hours later; nobody was around.

He limped forward for what seemed like ages and eventually reached what had been our original destination: the car. He set me down inside, my blood instantly staining the gray leather seats he had been so adamant my brother and I never ate while sitting on. He locked the car. Then he left, presumably to find help.

More blackness.

Then, warmth. The hospital. Even the faraway sound of someone saying I needed stitches was better than before.

I was alive.

The doctors said it was a miracle I didn't end up with any permanent internal damage. If you pull my bangs back and look really, really close you can see a scar—but that's about it. That's my reminder of what happened that day. It was the only time in my life I ever had to get stitches.

What does this have to do with Magic? When you're ready to move on, click to find out.

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Shortcuts are Dangerous

There is a lot out there written about Magic. There are a lot of ideas to absorb that aim to help you with your deck building. In moderation, using a couple can even be useful. However, when your entire deck building process starts to become one big shortcut, you're going to run into problems.

One clear example that happens all of the time is in Limited deck building. (Which is, in many ways, the root of most core Constructed deck-building skills.) A wide range of Magic players finish drafting, then look at their card pool, pick twenty-three playables, and then figure out what ratio of seventeen basic lands they want. It's just an automated process: twenty-three lands, seventeen spells. You can go along doing this and will probably be right somewhere around 75% of the time.

However, I'd say that somewhere around a quarter of the time, your deck actually wants to deviate.

What are some examples? Well, here are four common times you might want to play higher or fewer numbers of lands:

  • If your deck is slow, with a high curve, consider eighteen lands.
  • If your deck is excellent and only going to lose to mana screw a lot of the time, consider eighteen lands.
  • If your deck is fast, with a low mana curve, consider sixteen lands.
  • If your deck is weak and you need to get a little lucky to win, consider sixteen lands.

While those are notes for Limited, a similar issue crops in Constructed. Some players will continually build each archetype with a preconceived number of lands. However, depending on the deck's curve or needs that number should actually fluctuate quite a bit. When Simon Görtzen won Pro Tour San Diego with Jund, one of his big "innovations" was to simply play twenty-seven lands—and that was on top of two Rampant Growths, to boot! All of the "manlands" like Raging Ravine and Lavaclaw Reaches allowed him to safely play more lands with ease.

Raging Ravine
Lavaclaw Reaches

Another time this comes up in Limited is simply choosing which cards to cut. There are usually a number of cards in a draft format you don't really want to play, and you just dismiss them into the chaff pile out of experience. But, really, each and every time you should be asking yourself, "does this deck want this card?"

I'll never forget the time I watched Conley Woods 3–0 a draft on the back of multiple Living Destinys. In Gatecrash Limited, Primal Visitation is a card many people poke fun at—but I've certainly had a handful of draft decks where I've played the card to strong effect.

Living Destiny
Primal Visitation

The same is true for Constructed. There are a lot of deck archetypes created or perfect sideboard options you can find through cards that are regularly dismissed. You never know what you'll find.

Shortcuts in playtesting can lead to skewed results. Shortcuts in deck building can lead to suboptimal card choices. Shortcuts in game play can lead to poor plays. Not all shortcuts are bad, but whenever you catch yourself taking a shortcut just take a moment to reaffirm you aren't losing anything in the process. And if you discover yourself stepping on icy ground, perhaps that means it's time to back up and take the long way around the fountain.

Near-Death Experience #3

It was summer one year in the late 90s, and, like most seven-year-olds in the summer, I wanted to go to the pool.

For some reason (probably being a poopy doodyface or something), my brother wasn't so interested. So my parents worked it out so my brother and mom would stay at the cabin (we were on vacation at the time), and my dad would take me to the pool.

We headed up there and I got into the shallow end while my dad played the role of lifeguard.

I had fun splashing about and talking with Dad from the water for a while—but then one of the neighbors from a nearby cabin came. My dad, recognizing him, began to chat him up. And as they talked about stocks and the government and the 80s—you know, topics reserved for grown-ups—I grew bored.

So, I thought I'd do what I always did when I got bored: crawl around the edge of the pool. If you never did this when you were a kid, it simply meant holding onto the pool's ledge and making your way around the pool using your hands instead of any swimming ability. I only knew the basics of swimming at that point, so this was my makeshift way of exploring the pool.

As I moved my way around, my dad's conversation got more and more intense. He wasn't paying attention to me at all. And suddenly, now that I was all the way in the deep end (which I wasn't able to swim in) a wonderful idea struck me: what if I let go?

It was a very "Imp of the Perverse" moment. Maybe it was my sense of adventure. Maybe I wanted my dad's attention. Or maybe, just maybe, I was just a dumb child. I told my mom afterward, "I wanted to see what would happen."


More than anything, I had never been able to swim in the deep end and I desperately wanted to try. So, I ignored everything else and let my single driving thought take over.

I let go. And then I began to sink.

On my way down, I didn't make any fanfare. I didn't splash or thrash about. I didn't yell. I simply sunk. Like a cat walking into the middle of the street because it wanted to get hit, I knew what was happening but didn't do anything about it.

I hit the bottom of the pool. My lungs started to ache as I began running out of breath, and it was at this point that my brain noticed perhaps this wasn't the wisest decision. I tried moving my arms against the weight of the water, but nothing happened: you can't make splashes underwater. There was nothing I could do. I was all the way under.

Seconds passed like excruciating eternities. My air ran out. If I didn't breathe soon, I wouldn't ever breathe again.

And that's when I heard the thundering crash.

The water parting above. The churning whiteness. My dad coming to scoop me up and bring me back above water.

He would tell me later than he only noticed I was missing because a pause in conversation caused him to look over. If he had just continued talking, he wouldn't have noticed for minutes more. It was perfect timing. And thank goodness too—drowning in a pool on vacation with your parent ten feet away would have been a real embarrassing way to go out.

The only way I could describe my next breath of air: delicious.

The Magic connection? Click here to see!

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Don't Get too Focused on One Thing

Tunnel vision is bad. (Unless it's Ravnica Block Limited, in which case it can be okay.) If you get too focused on one thing, you risk losing sight of everything else around it. I wanted to swim in the deep end of the pool so badly that I risked my life.

I look through a ton of decklists each week. One of the most common mistakes I see week in and week out is looking at one thing so close that everything else is excluded.

Maybe you have a neat combo idea, but you have to dip into all five colors to make it work. Maybe there's one interaction that is really exciting, but instead of making a good deck with that interaction in it, the deck becomes single-mindedly myopic about focusing on that interaction.

In some cases, it's more about preparing for a metagame. You become so concerned with beating one deck that you lose sight of everything else. Suddenly it becomes all about beating Delver of Secrets at any cost, when maybe only a quarter of the matches will be against the one-drop menace. If you want to win the tournament, you have to fight through everything you play against—which is not going to just be one deck.

Or maybe you're so concerned with a matchup that won't even show up that you spend valuable sideboard slots on something you probably won't even face. You are so dead set on not losing to Mono-Red Burn again that you sideboard three Circle of Protection: Red... even though there might only be three or four copies of the deck in the entire event.

How many times have you been playing a match of Magic and you made a mistake because you were so focused on one line of play that you missed another? It's probably happened to all of us at one point. In deck building, where you have all the time you need to make the best decisions you can, it's crucial to look at something from all angles and know when to back off of it.

Near-Death Experience #4

I hadn't seen another human being since I got off the train two miles back. My cell phone had absolutely no reception. All I had packed to eat and drink were three bottles of water, a sandwich, and some fudge I bought in Juneau the day before.

And I was about to climb a glacier.

I never planned to do it alone. That was just the reality of the situation.

Let me back up.

The 2012 iteration of the yearly Magic Cruise had targeted Alaska as its destination. A good college friend of mine lived in Skagway, working on some of the tourist attractions, and, when I told her that I was coming, we chatted and she pulled some strings to set me up with what she felt was the absolute most incredible thing to do in Skagway: climb Laughton Glacier.

The plan was this. I would get off the boat at 7 a.m. and head to the train station. About halfway through, the train would make a special stop just for me—my friend had told the conductor where she wanted him to drop me off—and then I would hike up through the forest for a couple miles. Eventually, I would reach Laughton Glacier. I had to be back down by 4 p.m. for the train to pick me up or I wouldn't make it back to the ship in time.

My original plan was to hike with two others from the cruise. However, they both overslept and were nowhere to be found come 7 a.m. So I had a choice: skip out on this experience entirely or take a risk and go at it alone.

I chose the latter.

So there I was. Two miles up the trail, with the glacier finally before me. I had no way to contact people, nor any trace of humanity in sight. My rations were minimal. I had seen a bear on the train ride up and barely avoided a moose (surprisingly mean and hostile animals) on the trail. I was about to put on snowshoes, which I had never used before in my life. The following thought ran through my head: If I get injured, I'm just dead.

Is that actually true? Maybe. It's possible one of the three people who knew I was there would have said something and there would have been a search party for me. But either way, it certainly wouldn't have been a pleasant rest of the day.

So, what did I do? I moved onward. I usually try and keep as far away from anything as life threatening as possible. I had just started my dream job at Wizards and wasn't interested in cutting it short. But in this single case, I accepted the risk of climbing.

And you know what? It was worth it.


How does this relate to Magic? Click here to find out.

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Taking Risks can be Okay

People are naturally risk adverse. After all, why take a risk when you can take a sure thing instead?

Well, a lot of the greatest innovations have been risks. The key is making sure they are calculated risks instead of wild ones.

In this case, I knew there was a chance I could get injured or die—a chance far higher than I normally like to keep it. But I thought about it and decided having the experience for the rest of my life would be worth the risk. And indeed, it is definitely one of the most remarkable, breathtaking experiences I've ever had. Looking back at the photos and videos I posted on Facebook even today still gives me a sense of wonder.

In Magic, it's often right to take (calculated) risks too.

Maybe there's a great deck you like that can't beat one particular, less-popular deck, so you don't play it—but if your chances of playing the deck that trumps yours are low enough, it might just be a risk worth taking.

Maybe there's a matchup so bad that you can't win unless you sideboard eleven cards. Rather than waste eleven sideboard slots, it might be better to take the risk of not playing against it.

Maybe you have a great new deck, but are hesitant about playing it because nobody else has talked about it. There must be a reason nobody else is playing it, right? Well, every new deck starts off somewhere. I remember I had the Elves combo deck for Pro Tour Berlin—but opted not to play it because I was concerned about taking a risk with something brand new. It's so clear in retrospect that I should have just played it... but at the moment, I was concerned about taking such a big risk at my first Pro Tour.

Don't be afraid to be crazy and take some risks—provided they're thought out, of course. You, too, could go on the adventure of a lifetime.

A-Maze-ing Tales

That wraps up this week! Hopefully, you enjoyed this Topical Blend. I'd love to hear what you all thought.

In the meantime, it's time to turn the focus back toward Dragon's Maze! Next week, I'll show off my first preview, and in two weeks I'll show off my second—which you can start building decks for right now!

Here are the restrictions:

Format: Standard
Restrictions: Your deck must be at least white and black. (Playing other colors is okay as well.)
Deadline: Sunday, April 7, at 6 p.m. Pacific Time
Submit all decklists by clicking on "respond via email" below. Please submit decklists using the following template


20 Land
20 Land
4 Creature
4 Creature
4 Other Spell
4 Other Spell
4 Planeswalker

I look forward to showing off the crazy world of Dragon's Maze to all of you next week! In the meantime, feel free to send me any thoughts or feedback you have by posting in the forums or sending me a tweet. I'd love to hear from you!

Until next week, may you successfully stay alive. (But still go on interesting adventures.) Talk to you then!




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