As I said last week, this will be the final edition of Top Decks. If we had gone two more weeks, it would have been nine years. Nine! Years! The punks. Can I say "punks"? It's my last Top Decks. I'm saying "punks" at least three times.
Anyway, this sorta goodbye will be a retrospective of ten big things you could have learned from The Column Formerly Known As Swimming With Sharks, my ten (well, ten-and-a-half) favorite columns, and finally my Hall of Fame ballot for the year 2013.
- Part I: Ten Things You Could Have Learned from This Here Column
As sharks, we are all trying to get ahead. We try to get a line on the best tech, the secret tech, the next deck that will help us win FNM, PTQs, Regionals, and even premier events. Sometimes we can identify a great card, add it to the deck we love, and come out ahead with the next generation. But we too often concentrate not enough about just not falling behind. If we want to succeed, we need to hit the minimum before we go reaching for that elusive next level. Just before last year's US Regionals, before Relic Barrier was re-released, before Æther Vial started dropping Uktabi Orangutans in a big way, Brian David-Marshall devoted an entire episode of this very column to Hirata Tatsuya's Affinity deck, specifically his sideboard. For Tatsuya, Seething Song and Furnace Dragon was tech, was brand new, was innovative. It led him to an admirable second-place finish in his Kanto Regionals. But for everyone else, by the very next week, that sideboard combination became the minimum.
Want to qualify for the Pro Tour like Bezrukov and Day? Want to take it on your first try like Canali? Don't bring a knife when you know you are walking into a gun fight.
Don't be the guy with nothing more impressive than Shatter when everyone else is ready with Seething Song. If you want to get better, meet the minimum before you go running off... don't "tech out" your deck by cutting the best cards. Swim with the sharks but devour everyone else. Study and grow strong.
1. Many players fail to hit the minimum capabilities for their decks, yet go running off chasing some fancy new cards. Making your minimum requirements is, well, the minimum. You never want to be a bad something else.
...would it have been easier if I had said "seven rocks and one paper?"
Though Armageddon hasn't been present in the Core Set for some years, Wrath of God remains one of the most important symmetrical cards. Calling it symmetrical is a bit of a misnomer, though, because most competitive decks that play Wrath of God are, if not creature-less, creature light, and don't suffer much ill because their own threats are destroyed. Wrath of God is a pretty simple example because you can either hold back your creatures while the opponent plays out a couple—giving you the opportunity to generate card advantage with a two-for-one or so—or just bias your list in such a way that Wrath of God doesn't affect you at all, even if you are planning to use it as a one-for-one.
3. Symmetrical cards—that is, cards that at least in theory affect both players equally, like Terminus or Sire of Insanity—tend to imply a loss of card advantage and can bedevil especially newer players. Why would you, as with Armageddon, want to blow up all of your own lands? Or discard your own hand? Adept players can engineer situations where cards that seem symmetrical beat up the opponent while leaving them with an advantage.
The principle of the original Xerox deck is that for every four 1–2 mana cantrips, you can remove two lands. Therefore, even though Alan played only 17 actual Islands, the Foreshadows, Impulses, and Portents raised his effective count considerably. In the early game, Alan would have to use his cantrips to find land, but in the late game, he could use them to always have a counter in hand[.]
4. Fresh Volunteers over Steadfast Guard in mono-white Rebels? There might be a reason! It turns out the most difficult hurdle in tuning a new deck is often "getting the mana right." "UB Trippin'" outlines some tricks to do just that, plus introduces the "add cantrips/cut land" theory innovated by Pro Tour Hall of Famer Alan Comer that makes cards like Ponder, Preordain, and Gitaxian Probe so spectacular both early and late.
Reach is the ability of a deck to beat you outside of conventional creature combat. Typically we think of Reach in terms of red direct damage spells, or at least supplemental artifacts like Cursed Scroll. Think about how different it is to play against two aggressive beatdown decks with fast starts when one has Reach and one doesn't.
5. Understanding Reach (this was written years before "reach" was a blocking-related keyword) talks about the ability for some beatdown decks—specifically the ones with cards like Shock or Searing Blaze—to win outside of pure creature combat when others can't. Creature removal, mass creature removal, and so on, are much more effective against pure creature decks than those that just use creatures to soften you up before a final flaming flurry.
...sideboard cards are typically and necessarily more powerful than main deck cards.
6. What exactly do you want your sideboard to do for you? "The Craft of Sideboarding" argues (1) card advantage, (2) time, or (3) strategy suppression.
When possible, and in fact most of the time, I try to make my response cards faster and more numerous (without being inflexible) than the main threats of the format. The way that answers work in Magic, especially pinpoint answers, is that you have to have the right cards, and the right type of cards, at the right time. If you have responses that are too clunky or slow or narrow, you will inevitably fall to fast and efficient threats.
7. It is important to build speed and pay attention to the curve even when building control decks. "Some Thoughts on Defensive Deck Speed" is more or less my favorite theory article I did for Swimming With Sharks and Top Decks.
8. Broodmate Dragon or Baneslayer Angel in Five-Color Control? "The Age-Old Debate " examined the incentives of resilience against removal versus greater speed and battlefield impact (despite just dying to Doom Blade).
9. "Sometimes the better you know the game, the more you can get yourself into trouble." "Four Common Mistakes for Advanced, um, Donkeys " talks about mistakes that n00bs rarely, if ever, make. You've gotta know something to fall into one of these four traps!
[A] hybrid deck is a mash-up of two or more distinct deck strategies. The best hybrid decks can play at least one of its embraced strategies at near-peak efficiency, and just add the additional strategies for optional positional advantage.
10. Hybrid decks—specifically hybrid combo decks—are among my favorite kinds of decks. You put them on one path and win with a completely different plan!
- Part II: My Ten Favorite Episodes of Top Decks and/or Swimming With Sharks
One of the fun things about having this column is that the fans go gaga during spoiler season. Even though I am leaving Top Decks, I negotiated keeping preview cards every set (you're welcome) because I know how much y'all love them.
I actually find preview cards very hard to write, especially when they feature an obviously good creature like Hand of Cruelty. I walked away from this one, came back, and ended up loving how it ended up.
It is only in doing this retrospective that it dawned on me that we don't do a lot of "test for this gauntlet" type of articles any more. I suppose the weekly rundowns have sort of taken over, although they have essentially the opposite positioning. I tend to prefer the "this is what you have to think about when trying to beat [this]" to "[this] is what so-and-so played and this is how [this] works," personally.
You may have noticed, but I love thinking about Magic as much as I love playing it... maybe more. This article talks about all kinds of small things that can end up adding up.
Speaking of which, "How to Think About Magic" is the most explicit "thinking" article I did working on Top Decks—also a lot of fun to both read and write. If there is a ***** article on this page, I think "How to Think About Magic" is one. "You Asked Because I Asked" may have been the most fun to write, but "How to Think About Magic" is my pick for the actual best by me of the last nine years.
These are the best two written articles I did on Top Decks (IMO). "Move Along, Nothing to See Here"... was a preview of Flame Javelin; "Hot Gnu Tek" was your standard Grand Prix Top 8 rundown (Brad Nelson won). Both of them used the same technique of starting with a story/vignette and relating that to the body of the piece. When I need to gather up some inspiration I reread these for their technique.
Magic Online playback videos were inevitably going to gain popularity on Magic websites, but "Expect the Unexpected Tomorrow" was more or less the breakout of that subgenre for the Magic mainstream. It was a line in the sand and ultimately, for me, a point of great pride. Yes, I got a lot of things wrong and you probably can't compare what I did here with the best of today's playback content; nevertheless, "Expect the Unexpected Tomorrow" was probably the Top Decks article with the most overall slavishly one-dimensional (and positive!) feedback—ever— from the community for one of my columns (thanks, by the way).
The irony of this is that I did not do a particularly adept job of expecting the right decks, which is oddly appropriate. The article didn't say so much about Elves, which ended up being the vast majority of the Pro Tour Top 8.
I solicited questions and answers on Twitter to put this one together for Feedback Week. Lots of folks do Twitter feedback articles now, and for good reason—direct interaction with readers in a useful way is both fun and potentially fruitful. "You Asked Because I Asked" is hands-down the most fun I had writing in nine years on Wednesdays and Thursdays here on the mothership.
How the masters win (against other masters). Read it.
Who's the hero? What's the takeaway? Show me the decks already!
Everything else considered, writing a Top 8 rundown of a Pro Tour or World Championships is mechanically the same as writing a weekly rundown of a StarCityGames Open event, chunk of PTQs, or Magic Online results... only the focus of the story is Brian Kibler or Luis Scott-Vargas instead of a less-known local hero or unusual digital handle. The same challenges arise, the same lowering your shoulder to the grindstone, only the scale of fame and prizes is different. The challenges are twofold: How do you make such an article stand out against the usual weekly rundowns? How do you do that, not just for the readers and the ultimate end goal of OP-on-a-pedestal, but for your friend? I loved working on these articles because I got a chance to do what amounts to a repetitive task with a little bit of a different angle, and I think they turned out well (in particular, Conley's).
"I love it when a plan comes together."
- Part III: My 2013 Magic Pro Tour Hall of Fame Votes
Voting has been excruciatingly tough for me this year. Only LSV and Huey were locks for me. Huey, by the way, is an absolute lock. I think Osyp Lebedowicz said it best: If Jon Finkel says Huey was the best in the world and Kai Budde says Huey belongs in the Hall it isn't really up for debate anymore. Of course I am voting for LSV, but there is no more proud vote that I will cast this year than the one for William Jensen.
Am I only going to vote for two? What about four? Of all the potential candidates the most bedeviling for me is Saito. I don't want to dredge up infinite—or any—negativity in the last paragraphs of my last Top Decks in a section devoted to the game's highest honor... but from many dimensions there is no player I respect more than Tomoharu Saito. He is the titan on the Theros art, towering ove other mages with his brilliantly simple beatdown decks and disruptive publication models; and yet, I cannot in good conscience cast my ballot for him this year.
I think a failing that many vote-casters have is that they weigh only some combination of results and playing ability (the latter of which is somewhat nebulous and relies on the ever-unreliable "eye test") and ignore the other stated Hall of Fame criteria of integrity, sportsmanship, and contributions to the game. In the first year of the Hall of Fame, I tried to construct some sort of weird mathematical algorithm of paragons and quantification of essentially normative "data," and my first-year ballot looked all over the place.
Since, I have just tried to vote my conscience, according to the five-fold criteria with which all balloteers are entrusted, and as a nod to and a celebration of the intentions the folks in Renton, WA, had when they gave me my ballot. My ballot may look a little different than those of my colleagues, and it should. It is not just the ballot of a longtime columnist but a former editor of The Magic Dojo, a USENET pioneer, and a many-time PTQ winner and Pro Tour irregular from the early days. It was always meant to be the ballot of a rusty old veteran who can remember Mike Loconto topdecking the Swords to Plowshares that decided Pro Tour One and hometown hero Bob Maher catching his lady love and twirling her 'round the roaring Chicagoland crowd after an improbable 0–5 PT victory with his Weapon of Choice.
If you consider this perspective, and all five criteria, Chris Pikula becomes a slam-dunk vote. He might, in fact, be the paragon of as many as three categories, and certainly finishes Top 2–3 in all of the three.
Which is not to discount Chris's playing ability or results. Certainly on a purely results analysis he is "only" in the top chunk of the available candidates, but it's not like he doesn't have a Hall of Fame resume—Chris's performances outstrip a fair number of current Hall of Famers, and unlike many he still plays actively in tournaments. I am quite interested in seeing what Chris could do with a couple of automatic Blue Envelopes. He has been pummeling the StarCityGames Legacy Opens, having made back-to-back Top 8s with Brainstorm and Nimble Mongoose; I think, like, Jensen or Ben Stark he can quickly level his game back up to pro standards, if given a reason.
Speaking of Stark, Ben Stark is vote #4. You don't need a whole lot of reasons to vote for Ben, so that is where I am going to leave it.
My 2013 Magic Pro Tour Hall of Fame Ballot (and the last words on Top Decks):
- Luis Scott-Vargas
- William "Baby Huey" Jensen
- Chris Pikula
- Ben Stark
- ...and one vote I wish I could have cast
P.S. So... anyone have any good ideas for a new column name?
P.P.S. Don't send 'em to me or anything. New column name ideas to my editor-in-chief, Trick.
Top Decks Archive
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."