Lessons Learned, and Applied

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You should know my steelo/

went from 10 Gs for blow/

to 30 Gs a show/

The Notorious B.I.G.

For anyone not into Hip-Hop, or anyone that is a fan but has still somehow managed to avoid the term, steez (or steelo) is what makes you you. It's a slang term for your personal style, your way of doing things, etc. With that in mind, I thought I would share a bit more of my Magical history with you and some of the lessons I have learned that have led me to the success I've had.

I have been playing off and on since about Ice Age, which came out in 1995. I was born in 1989, which means I was barely six when I started playing. Like most new players and most players that age, I started with mono Green.

Deck/Lesson Number One: Attack From Multiple Angles

[deckbox did="a46" size="small" width="567"]

A clear masterpiece, I know. After graduating from my friends' basements to the local card shop, I began to realize that some diversity in cards could be helpful. While I did have some range in the form of a basic mana curve, more due to luck and pictures than any initial understanding or skill I'm sure, all I did was play a guy and attack with it. If they had a game plan for creatures or had small, early creatures of their own, I was in trouble. While Magic was not terribly advanced at the time, and the lack of widespread decklists meant that you could get away with a lot of bad ideas, this was still below the curve.

After getting destroyed at a local tournament, I decided that I was going to try to play decks that could do more than one thing at a time. Even if I could beat some players, there was always going to be someone in the room that had a deck that could beat my plan of attack. I wanted to be able to do attack from multiple angles at a time.

This is why I don't like decks like RDW much, regardless of any results they post. I like to play decks that let me have a chance against everyone and don't just automatically scoop to anyone. RDW is more vulnerable than most decks to hate, and if you play against someone that lost to RDW in their last three tournaments and decided to overload on hate this time, you're simply going to lose that matchup. If the other person is playing with [card Celestial Purge]Celestial Purges[/card], Kitchen Finks, [card Obstinate Baloth]Obstinate Baloths[/card], [card Runed Halo]Runed Halos[/card], etc, there isn't much you can do because you don't have any other plans of attack. You can't go around any [card Wall of Omens]walls[/card] they put in front of you; you have to just keep bashing your head into, hoping you can break through. If enough people play a deck at enough tournaments, it is going to get a win every now and then, but decks with a single line of attack that are easily disrupted, such as RDW or Dredge, do not appeal to me because they are such risky gambles.

Deck/Lesson Number Two: Don't Play Theme Decks

Anxious to prove I had learned my lesson and I was prepared to conquer the world with decks that could attack from multiple angles, I set about building a new deck and came back with this piece of treasure:

David's Direct Damage Deck of Doom*

[deckbox did="a47" size="small" width="567"]

This was the first time I had built a deck, or seen a deck built by someone else, that had an idea of what it was going to do and then found the cards to do it, rather the other way around. When I build decks today, I look at the metagame and the available cards and decide what to play based on what I think can be exploited. If all the decks are very mana-hungry, I'll try to build a land destruction deck. If everyone is attacking with Grizzly Bears, I'll build a deck with either [card Wrath of God]Wrath of Gods[/card] or a bunch of 3/3s. For this deck, however, I decided I wanted to play a deck with a bunch of Fireballs, and I looked at the quality of the deck later.

This is a mistake I see many players making when building a new deck, or choosing a deck to play. Building a deck full of Goblins, or Elves, or artifacts, or whatever else you choose might be great fun to play. At times, the cards will be strong enough that you can have a competitive deck of your chosen theme, but if you are trying to build/play a deck with a theme in mind before you start looking at the available cards you are going to be severely handicapped. If you decide to play an Elf deck and the cards simply don't exist to build a competitive Elf deck at the time, you're in trouble. You are going to have more success building an Elf deck because it seems the cardpool exists to create a viable deck and the metagame is weak to a swarm of little Green men than if you decide to build an Elf deck, then look at the cardpool to see what tools are available to you.

Deck/Lesson Number Three: Mana

[deckbox did="a48" size="small" width="567"]

At last, I had expanded into multiple colors.

"You know, I believe we're making progress."

I had a manacurve that wasn't vomit-inducing, removal and creatures, and even a combo or two. While I didn't know that I could make a creature attack with Nettling Imp and kill their attacker before blocking or taking damage with a Royal Assassin, Nettling Imp and Sengir Vampire was good enough to win a lot of games, and Icy Manipulator with [card Royal Assassin]the Royal[/card] was good enough to win a lot of others.

My biggest problem here was with the mana. I was only playing eight White cards, but my mana was split right down the middle. Even worse, I had both White Knight and Black Knight in the same deck with no dual lands. Even if I got a perfect distribution of lands, it was not possible for me to play a Knight of either color on turn two and a Knight of the other color the next turn without a Dark Ritual, which I preferred to use for an early [card Hypnotic Specter]Hippie[/card] or Sengir Vampire. While a turn two Knight was worth mentioning, it was much less impressive on turn four or later. The [card Serra Angel]Angel[/card] was good enough to be worth the stretch on the mana, but the [card White Knight]White Knights[/card] should have gone. They were bad for the deck, both on the mana, and on the manacurve. Because I had no dual lands to help with the mana, they were going to be cast on turn four or later most of the time, but this deck had plenty of business on the later turns. I had [card Sengir Vampire]eight[/card] [card Serra Angel]fatties[/card] plus the Icy Manipulator for action on turn four or later. Playing a [card White Knight]Knight[/card] on turn four instead of a [card Dark Ritual]Ritual[/card] into a Sengir Vampire seems incorrect, and if I played the [card Sengir Vampire]Vampire[/card] first instead I was pushing the White Knight even later in the game, when it was going to have even less impact on the board.

I learned two lessons from this deck, both mana-related. You have to pay attention to your mana base and make sure you have the ability to realistically cast your spells, and you also have to be able to cast your spells on time. While the Vivid lands have allowed some fairly ridiculous mana symbols to exist side by side in the same deck recently, this is a good lesson for when Standard or for Extended after it returns to reality. In any sane world, you can not play Demigod of Revenge and Cryptic Command in the same deck and expect to cast them both on curve. You have to pay attention to the needs and constraints of your mana, and sometimes you don't get to play with all of your toys at once. Before States this year, my buddies and I spent entirely too long trying to get Doom Blade and Creeping Tar Pitinto UW Control without crashing the mana, but we were unable to get a configuration of lands that could cast Doom Blade on turn two and still cast Jace, the Mind Sculptor, then Gideon Jura on turn five. While it was fairly easy to cast all of them in the same deck, we were unable to cast them on the turn we needed them to be cast.

It is almost a shame that the most mana-intensive cards in Extended, such as Cryptic Command, Demigod of Revengeand Cloudthresher are all going to be leaving at the same time as the cards that allow ridiculous manabases, such as [card Vivid Crag]Vivid[/card] [card Vivid Creek]lands[/card] and the [card Twilight Mire]filter[/card] [card Fetid Heath]lands[/card], because I think it would be quite interesting to see what the decks would look like if people had to choose more carefully what toys to play with.

Deck/Lesson Number Four: Blue Instants

After the Black-White deck, I quit Magic for a while. I missed out on [card Tolarian Academy]Combo Winter[/card] (Combo Summer? I always forget) and [card Lin Sivvi, Defiant Hero]Rebels[/card], as well as most of Invasion block. I came back to the cardboard crack when Odyssey was about to come out. After some time getting some cards again and catching up on the rules, I built my first post-comeback deck:

[deckbox did="a49" size="small" width="567"]

+ lands

While this did reasonably well, I had problems with another popular deck at the time, [card Mystic Snake]Snake[/card]-[card Flametongue Kavu]Tongue[/card]. Snake-Tongue was a similar base to this, with eight mana dorks, [card Flametongue Kavu]FTk[/card] and Shivan Wurm, but it played blue for Mystic Snake and The Acronym. The Acronym was EOTFOFYL, which was one of the most powerful plays around at the time. It went like this: End of Turn, Fact or Fiction, You Lose. Barring an extremely unlucky top five cards, [card Fact or Fiction]Facting[/card] at the end of the turn would put a player far ahead in the game. One of my clearest memories in my development as a spell-slinger was a playtest session with an unfortunately named local player who was piloting Snake-Tongue. Every game seemed to play out the same way. We would go back and forth for a little while, and I would gain a slight edge in life because my deck was a little more aggressive, then he would cast a Fact or Fiction and the game would be over. I might be able to fight on for a little while, but the writing was on the wall. I could win a few games if I got an amazing draw, he flipped bricks from his [card Fact or Fiction]FoF[/card], he didn't draw a [card Fact or Fiction]FoF[/card], or if he stumbled on his mana, but I was losing far more than I won.

There was a very simple lesson to be learned here: play Blue instants. Mike Flores said on a podcast he did with Brian David-Marshall (for their site Top8Magic) a while back that the best way to improve a deck was to cut the worst card and add a land, because no one played enough lands. I prefer to add more Blue instants. If you are having problems playing a creature-based deck against other creature decks, try cutting [card Gatekeeper of Malakir]your worst creature[/card] for some way to [card Jace, the Mind Sculptor]draw cards[/card], or otherwise create card advantage.

[card Cunning Sparkmage]Spark[/card]-[card Basilisk Collar]Collar[/card] and Linvala, Keeper of Silence don't draw you cards, but they create a large amount of card advantage in any mirrors between the various Noble Hierarch decks in extended by turning off each others creatures or mana, respectively. Without either of those, you are going to have a hard time winning any Naya/Mythic-like mirrors, because you have no way to create card advantage.

"He is refining his methods."

Deck/Lesson Number Five: Social, and Sideboards

A while later, I put together UG Madness.

[deckbox did="a50" size="small" width="567"]

+ lands and irrelevant sideboard cards

I was hanging out at the shop one day with nothing better to do (I was thirteen-ish and played Magic regularly) when two of the older players came in. They were on their way to the next town over, a couple of hours drive away, for an Extended tournament and were just stopping to purchase a couple of last minute singles. After a minute or two talking to them about their decks, they asked me if I wanted to come along. I was shocked. It had never occurred to me that these guys would be willing to take me along for the ride. At the time, I was freshman in high school, and these guys were in COLLEGE. I was lucky to go 2-2 at FNMs, and I made an intense study of the tops of my shoes when I walked from class to class. These two not only won at Friday Night Magic, they had GIRLFRIENDS. I idolized these guys, and here they were - just asking if I wanted to go sling spells like it was the most casual thing in the world. Imagine Zeus had called you to Mount Olympus, and when you finished the journey, he asked if you wanted to have a drink and watch the game.

This was my first experience with Magic as a social game. I had made some friends playing at FNMs, and I had introduced a couple of existing friends to the game, but I had never before seen Magic foster community between people with little or nothing else in common. Since then, I have crashed on couches all over the Northwest. I went to the SCG Open last summer in Denver by Greyhound because I couldn't get enough people together from town to fill a car. When I got off the bus, I knew nobody in town and had nowhere to stay. After getting lost for a while, I eventually found my way to the tournament site and met a couple of guys that were willing to let me crash on their floor. The next day I found another guy that had an extra bed in his hotel room because his friend had bailed at the last minute, and I talked him into letting me make use of it. We didn't know each others' names and hadn't even discussed payment when he agreed to put me up - he just saw a fellow gamer in need. I later learned he was Ben Wienburg.

Magic is a great game not because of the complexity and the intellectual requirements, where it is not terribly far beyond other games. What makes it a great game in my eyes is the social interaction and camaraderie it fosters, which other games lack. I enjoy the intellectual challenge of the game, but there are many games capable of offering that which I don't play. I have stayed in mansions with three beautiful garages owned by the grandparents of a friend of a friend on my way to a tournament. I've gotten lost in ax-murder territory, been put up in a mansion owned by the former step-mother of a guy I barely knew, and driven sixteen hours inside a twenty-four hour period for the privilege of 2-2-dropping, all due to Magic. I have had the opportunity to play Type Four with Judges from a stack made of our shuffled together Highlander decks at gas stations after our shared bus broke down. I have played mental Magic with the SCG buyers after hours, woke up in Salt Lake City when I thought I was going to Seattle, and accidentally ordered "COCK!!" at a drive-thru at five in the morning thanks to traveling for tournaments and I wouldn't change a second of it. Magic is a great game because of the stories that its players become a part of and participate in, and this was my first encounter with that side of the game.

But the fact that Magic had a more interesting social side was not the only thing I got from this trip. I also learned the value of a sideboard for the first time. When I was in the car on the way to Billings, I made the two guys fill me in on what to expect, as this was several firsts for me. It was my first out-of-town tournament and my first tournament with higher REL than FNM, as well as my first Extended tournament.

I forget what one of the guys was playing, but Sam was packing a Combo deck that eventually milled the other player for their entire library. I want to say it used Brain Freeze, but the timing doesn't seem right, and I don't remember for sure. When I saw he intended to mill me, I put two [card Krosan Reclamation]Krosan Reclamations[/card] in my sideboard, figuring I could buy myself another four turns of beatdown if he combo-ed me out, which should be enough as I could win even after being milled for my entire library. We ended up playing against each other in the finals, and after fighting over his Combo briefly, he milled me for everything in my library. The same thing happened in game two, and after I put my deck into my graveyard he started scooping up his cards. He looked puzzled when I insisted he wait and we play it out, but when I untapped and flashed back a Krosan Reclamation on my upkeep, buying myself enough turns to finish him off with what was in play, he understood. Even more importantly, I finally understood what the big deal was about sideboards. I had never bothered to build or play with one before then, and I have never played without one since.

Sideboards are incredibly important parts of Magic. They allow you to customize your deck to your opponent's strategy, hopefully allowing you to maintain or regain the upper hand. One of the most impressive sideboards I have seen recently was Owen Turtenwald's, from the recent Grand Prix in Atlanta:

The best thing about this sideboard is that it doesn't just help against the Fae's bad matchups, it is also full of cards that are good against the cards they expected other players to sideboard against them, by repositioning. After sideboarding, when other players were going to be bringing in cards like Volcanic Fallout, Cloudthresher, War Priest of Thune and others in an attempt to keep Bitterblossom and the army of 1/1s at bay, they could simply become a UB Control deck with more removal, counterspells, and [card Vampire Nighthawk]lifelink[/card] [card Wurmcoil Engine]creatures[/card], thus changing the field of battle. If the enemy is bringing in reinforcements (sideboarding) would you rather try to fight through their additional cavalry, or just move to their flank and hit them in an unexpected way (reposition)?

"He is...evolving."

Deck/Lesson Number Six: The Prime Directive

[deckbox did="a51" size="small" width="567"]

After other locals started riding the UG Madness bandwagon, I decided I wanted to be different, so I concocted this. While I met my goal of doing something different, I hadn't built anything special or good. The problem was that this didn't beat anything that a normal UG deck had problems with, and it lost to other UG Madness decks. If you played a stock UG Madness list you could expect to go about 50-50 in the mirror, but this list had a problem with other UG decks because it lacked the capability to draw a late game Wonder and suddenly win through what had been a clogged battlefield. Sometimes I could get a couple of [card Standstill]Standstills[/card] and bury them in card advantage, and occasionally a [card Phantom Centaur]Centaur[/card] with a [card Elephant Guide]Guide[/card] could attack through any of their defenses before they were able to make [card Wonder]flying[/card] [card Roar of the Wurm]6/6s[/card] and alpha strike through the air, but most of the time I just lost.

This was a violation of the Prime Directive of Magic, which states:

You will not play a deck that is a bad version of another deck.

If this list had been able to beat some matchups that a standard UG Madness list had trouble with, then it would make sense to pilot it in some metagames. It didn't. It had the same percentages against every other deck as stock UG, but it had a worse mirror match.

A recent example of this is playing Mono Green Eldrazi in standard instead of Valakut. Mono Green Eldrazi and Valakut share the same important cards, Primeval Titan and Summoning Trap, but Valakut has access to Lightning Bolt and Pyroclasm which gives it a better matchup against aggressive strategies. Because Mono Green Eldrazi is trying to cast [card Emrakul, the Aeons Torn]giant[/card] [card Kozilek, Butcher of Truth]aliens[/card] while Valakut's curve stops at [card Avenger of Zendikar]seven[/card], Valakut is also less susceptible to disruption, as it can conceivably cast its spells even if it its ramp spells are countered.

The idea of looking at decks in terms of being good/bad other decks is a quite interesting and insightful way to approach a format. The 'X is a good/bad Y' argument can be applied to any two similar decks. In current extended, I could see the argument being applied to Faeries/Merfolk, UW Control/5 Color Control, RG Valakut/RUG Valakut, Mythic/Naya, or other decks that share a similar philosophy and game plan.

If your deck does not beat anything that a stock list has problems with, but has a worse matchup against anything that the stock list is good against, you are in violation of the Prime Directive.

Deck/Lesson Number Seven: Netdecks, Money, Judges, and Confidence

[deckbox did="a52" size="small" width="567"]

This was right around the time The Internet started playing a larger role in the Magic world. While The Dojo and others had been around a while, it was not yet taken for granted that you could easily check the decklists from a dozen finished tournaments or find the writings of any writer you wanted. I had heard rumblings from here and there that UW Control was a good deck, but this was entirely my list**, built independently.

When I showed up at States that year, I was shocked that so many people had built my deck. I even got in an argument with a couple of people about whether my deck was or was not a netdeck. I saw my creation, which I built from the ground up, while they saw another UW deck in a sea of UW Control.

States that year was my first large tournament, and I was extremely nervous going in. Despite my play mistakes, however, I managed to put myself in a position to draw into the top eight in the last round. My opponent and I agreed to the draw and reported the judge, then went to watch the other matches. After fifteen or twenty minutes, my opponent decided he wanted to play it out, and talked the judge into letting us start.

I lost.

I ended in tenth place, the highest I could place without getting any prizes, as they gave a consolation prize to ninth.

I learned more from that tournament that any other. First, when I saw so many other people playing "my" deck, I realized I should be taking advantage of the many articles available on The Internet. My list had one person working on it, while everyone else had The Internet working on their list. We weren't terribly far apart, but it was enough I would have had a much better chance in my last match that kept me from the top eight if I had used the stock list.

The second thing I learned was that you have to pay for all the cards to truly compete. My list would have been significantly better if I had [card Exalted Angel]Exalted Angels[/card] in my main, but I couldn't afford them at the time because I was too young for a job. I had been able to turn my weekly allowance and what was left of my Christmas money into most of the deck, but I couldn't afford the $15 [card Exalted Angel]Exalteds[/card]. At the time, I believe she was a new high for a Standard card. It is unfortunate that the prices of tournament decks have spiraled so far upward, but it is what it is. Magic is an expensive game to play, especially if you play competitively, and there are no two ways around it. You can mitigate a significant amount of the expense if you share cards or borrow cards from a friend, but you are still going to be paying for gas or airfare, hotel rooms, etc if you plan to play in the larger tournaments and that adds up quickly. All my previous decks had been fairly cheap for me to build, and this was the first time I had been wanting for a card due to price. I decided I had to either jump in or get out, as dipping my toe in the water of Magic wasn't going to cut it.

I frequently see people at larger tournaments complaining about their losses to a more expensive deck full of [card Tarmogoyf]Goyfs[/card], [card Jace, the Mind Sculptor]Jaces[/card], or whatever the money card at the moment is. If you want to compete in real tournaments, it seems better to me to go to one event with all the cards you need than three or four events with a budget deck that you know is not going to perform well. You are going to have a better time at any tournament if you feel you actually have a shot at doing well, rather than being regulated to the lower tables because your deck doesn't have all the tools necessary to compete. Better to take the money you spent on hotel, gas, etc for three tournaments and put that towards a set of [card Jace, the Mind Sculptor]Jaces[/card] so that you can play a fourth tournament with everything you need than to go to four tournaments with nothing to show for it.

I also learned that sometimes judges get it wrong. I don't believe that it was correct for him to allow us to start playing after having already reported a draw, especially with so much of the time in the round gone. At the time, however, it didn't occur to me that a judge might be incorrect about a ruling and I could appeal. It was my first tournament large enough to even have a judge, and I viewed his word as law.

Judges are people too. They are fallible. If you disagree with a judge's ruling, appeal to the Head Judge. As long as you are civil about it, they shouldn't take it as an insult that you are questioning them.

The most important thing I learned from this tournament was confidence. I was still hovering around the middle of the standings at FNM, my tournament wins were few and far between, and I had never played a tournament this size before. I didn't have all the cards I needed, I was the only person working on my deck while other lists were the result of the Hive Mind, and I was going against the wisdom of many of the respected local players on a number of my card choices and numbers. Despite it all, however, I had to be cheated to miss the top eight and I ended in tenth, better than any of my friends and most of the local players.

Have a bit of faith in yourself. Your list might not be optimal: it might be a homebrew in a sea of netdecks, it may be a budget list - if you know what you are doing with it and know your matchups, you can still be competitive. I heard recently that a number of LSV's opponents in his draft videos have had him dead on board but they assumed he must have something and waited long enough they died. The fact you are playing a name player does not automatically mean you are going to lose or that they have the perfect card in hand to wreck you if you alpha strike.

Deck/Lesson Number Eight: The Best Deck

After Onslaught block came Affinity Block, also known in some circles as "Mirrodin." If you never played during that time, let me tell you a story. It goes like this: life was terrible.

The End.

I wasn't playing during the rein of Combo when [card Necropotence]The Skull[/card] was king or later when Urza's Saga block gave us a whole slew of broken decks, so this was my first experience with a truly degenerate format. I had no practice playing with or against decks that ended the game before turn five, and it was quite a shock to me to suddenly be dead on board from attackers before I had the mana to cast a Wrath of God. [card Arcbound Ravager]Ravagers[/card] and [card Disciple of the Vault]Disciples[/card] could do that.

I decided to fight the power and play anything but the best deck, in an attempt at protest. Instead, I played Tooth and Nail:

[deckbox did="a53" size="small" width="567"]

I knew that Affinity was better and I knew that my hate wasn't enough to beat it when I went to Regionals that year, but I was in denial.

I got royally stomped and deserved it. I had no real game plan against Affinity, I had just jammed a couple of hate cards into my deck and hoped it would be enough. While other players had success playing decks that were not Affinity, they had put in the time to develop a real plan against the deck and had searched for more technology in the available cardpool, while I had not.

The best deck is the best deck for a reason. It is resistant to lazy, unfocused attempts to beat it with ineffectual hate cards, and it punishes those who believe they beat it when they don't. You can not simply put a card you know is good against it in your pet deck and expect to suddenly win what was previously a miserable matchup.

This is a mistake I see many people repeating in Extended today. Yes, Great Sable Stag is good against Faeries. That does not mean you can just jam it in the sideboard of any deck and expect to beat Fae. Faeries has a number of answers to the [card Great Sable Stag]Stag[/card], ranging from Wall of Tanglecord to Vampire Nighthawk to Wurmcoil Engine, so you can not just expect them to roll over and die when you resolve your Stag.

If you have a viable plan against Faeries that the [card Great Sable Stag]Stag[/card] fits well with, by all means board it. If you have not thoroughly tested the matchup between your deck and Faeries, however, do not think you can add a playset of [card Great Sable Stag]Stags[/card] to your board and suddenly cruise through your Fae matchup.

Thanks for reading,

Brook Gardner-Durbin

@BGardnerDurbin on Twitter

*My first name is David, I just go by my middle name Brook.

**My list actually played three [card Sunbeam Spellbomb]Sunbeam Spellbombs[/card] to gain life against aggressive decks, but you'd never catch me admitting it today.

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