Improving Your Brew

Written by Mike Keknee on . Posted in Competitive Magic, Standard

Improving Your Brew

Mike Keknee

Mike Keknee has been playing Magic off and on since 1999. He is a grinder with some positive results, but brewing is his first love. You can follow him on Twitter @Big_Tears. You can also hear him on the @AtYourEndStep podcast hosted by MTGcast.

The reasoning behind brewing a deck is obvious. (Cue dream sequence.) You identify a hole in the metagame, your brew deck crushes all the other decks, and you alone are left with the prize. This rarely happens. You are probably not Conley Woods, Mike Flores or Patrick Chapin. More than likely your homebrewed concoction is not as impressive as your imagination might lead you to believe, and yet this shouldn’t stop you from trying. The key is to take that idea or pet card and truly flesh it out into a real deck that can compete in the given format (whatever that may be).

The Pluses and Minuses of Brewing

Brewing a deck can be extremely gratifying. Some prefer the pressure of a tension-filled tournament. Some prefer the high level of competition, but there is something uniquely fulfilling about piloting your own brew to success.

Success can vary depending on what you are trying to do. If it is competitive, then a high tournament finish against proven decks is the result you are looking for. The satisfaction of a high finish is even better when you used your knowledge to crush others working with old technology. Success also may be finishing .500 at an FNM.  There have been many decks (for example a deck featuring Krark’s Thumb and Fiery Gambit) where I knew that winning consistently was not an option, but the look on an opponent’s face when it did was just as good. It is up to you where you want to take your secret laboratory concoction.

Before identifying how to go about formulating a rogue idea/deck, let’s take a look at the pros and cons to brewing. You give up the safety of playing a sure thing. For many players, this can be like Linus giving up the blanket. Playing the “best deck” allows you to hide behind statements of being unlucky rather than how poorly you may have played. Additionally, you lose the connection to information on how to play and sideboard with the deck. Not to mention, unless you are a pro, you generally lose some support from those around you for choosing something off the beaten path.

But brewing opens you up to a unique aspect of the game, wherein you may be a step ahead of the competition. A powerful rogue deck can catch opponents who planned for a metagame off guard. It can access powerful synergies that others have ignored. Many will ignore these players/decks for the consistency of “best deck”, yet remember that results can be misleading. Delver, until recently, hadn’t won an SCG open in forever. Sure you had a lot of these decks in the Top 8, but that only reflects the 50 percent of the room playing the deck. It is the tweaked/new decks (like Reid Duke’s Wolf Run or Kurt Krane’s Elf Wave) that are truly impressive based on their low play rate comparatively. There is also the pride in successfully piloting a deck that you constructed is what Magic is all about.

Picking the Card/Theme/Combo

One of the strengths of professional players who brew is that they are able to critically examine a metagame. Then they are able to identify an unused or unsung card/synergy to exploit a hole in the metagame. Some good examples would be Tom Martell’s use of Lingering Souls at the Indianapolis Legacy Grand Prix recently, or Brian Kibler’s affection for Thalia, Guardian of Thraben. These players used these cards to great results, and they were generally ahead of the curve in doing so.

Kibler addressed that the Delver deck runs a tempo-based game. That deck wants to get slightly ahead and keep that edge until they win. Kibler’s Naya deck was aggressive and powerful, but it still had an issue with getting its early mana creatures blown out — therefore falling behind. He latched on to Thalia as a way to deal with this. If you can’t skip to your three drop, then drop Thalia and let her catch you up. Delver decks got very mana greedy for a while (a winning GP list had 19!), and Thalia was the perfect way to punish them. We all watched the metagame shift back due to this, and Delver lists began running more Gut Shots again to deal with the 2/1 legend.

Another aspect to this is to remember that Magic is first and foremost a game. You want to have fun, and one of the ways to do this is to play cards that you enjoy playing … crazy, right? Note that former player of the year Brad Nelson, seems to have an unhealthy addiction to Trading Post, and both LSV and Mike Flores have been tooling with Battle of Wits lists. I personally have an obsession with Chalice of Life/Death, and have enjoyed using various decks to make FNM opponents rage.

Remember to identify the level of competition that you want to play at when approaching your deck. It is important to know how far your deck can really go. Sometimes you may know that you are on to something powerful, and you definitely should pursue it. However, sometimes you need to be able to recognize that your awesome FNM deck is not something you should drop 40 dollars on at a premier event.

Recognizing Your Strengths

Once you have chosen the card(s) you will use, you need to recognize your strengths as a player and deck builder. What kind of deck do you enjoy playing? Aggro? Combo? Control? This should be a major factor in how you approach building your deck. Generally this process is fluid. Is your brew based on one card? Based on a combination of cards? Based on overall synergy?

Let’s go back to my pet card, Chalice of Life/Chalice of Death. This card has seen minimal play out of sideboards, but perhaps there is a deck out there built just for it. For it to be a win condition, you must reach at least 30 life. Additionally it gains you one life per turn, which lends itself to a slower/grindier style of play. Hopefully you quickly recognized that a deck playing this card should probably never appear in a dedicated aggro list. This leaves us with two options, combo or control. Certainly you could try to play a combo deck that goes all in on life gain and deck manipulation, or you could play a control deck. I enjoy playing control. They are many cards available to a Blue, White, and/or Black style of control deck. So it was a natural fit for me, and your choice should feel that way as well.

Try to maximize your enjoyment of the deck. That means play to your strengths. If you work to emphasize the effectiveness of the deck, as well as your level of fun, then regardless of outcome, you will probably be satisfied playing the deck. Still, be careful of falling in to the trap. Bad cards are usually just bad. That doesn’t mean you should never play them, but just realize that by defending your bad cards, you are generally sacrificing effectiveness.

Being Honest about Your Card Selection

As much as I love the Chalice, and as much as you love [insert your favorite unsung hero here], we both know that certain cards are awful. I want to gain life, but playing Angel’s Mercy is a bad choice. The card will do nothing to stop a horde of angry creatures ready to destroy your life total. Perhaps you want to mill your opponent out, great! Yet playing Thought Scour as a way to mill your opponent for two is a rather futile way to go about it.

A rogue deck has things going for it that other decks do not. The opponent is normally unprepared and unable to sideboard correctly for the match. Additionally, you may be able to abuse synergies that they will not recognize until it is too late. This, however, is dependent on your deck being able to function properly. Playing Saving Grasp is technically synergistic with Snapcaster Mage & Restoration Angel in Blue/White Delver. Yet that synergy is still not as powerful as the overall effectiveness of Vapor Snag.

Make sure that your card choices are still doing something powerful enough to win the game, instead of just making moments where your opponent mentions how cute your interaction is before they finish you off. So be honest, and ensure that your list is designed to be as powerful as possible.

Don’t Panic! It’s OK to Netdeck!

Many brewers, unfortunately, look upon netdecking as an evil vilifying thing. It is common to hear around the tables, as well as online, someone spew the comment, “way to netdeck.” This statement somehow means that originality is lost by experimenting with another’s idea. This seems frustratingly naïve. Let’s look to baseball. If a team has one out and a runner on first, then the logical thing for the defensive team to do is to try and turn a double play. This seems obvious, but what if your team refused to do that. They saw others teams do that and to copy them would be unoriginal. Fundamentally, this would be an awful team, and the manager who made this decision would be fired. The same can be said for Magic.

Formats, specifically Standard, are broken much quicker than they used to be. Multiple premier events happen each weekend. From the Grand Prix Circuit to Star City Games Open Series, big events are allowing players to solve and tune like never before. When you decide to brew, especially for competitive events, then you must examine these results to make the optimum choices. Be careful, there are definitely better times to come equipped with brews than others. Grand Prix are a toss-up; just recognize that you will see more variations of the best deck (older and newer) than in say an SCG Open. If your deck is tuned for the most current build, then you may be frustrated when you never play it.  Brews are also better later in formats, when the technology you need to beat has already been viewed and broken down. In some cases, your rogue idea will sync up well with an established list. And you know what? That is just fine.

It isn’t evil to use successful lists as your basis. In fact, if you are crafty enough, you can take one of those lists and brew to prey upon your opponent’s assumptions. Take deck crafter Sam Black’s White/Blue midrange deck that is still popular. The alternative title for this list was Delverless Delver. That is an intriguing statement that results in all sorts of implications. The deck played all of the basic cards expected of the usual Delver of Secrets list, but instead focused on creatures that could trump the flying aberration. This deck’s opponents would see the opening and assume it was a Delver deck that hadn’t drawn a delver. In many cases, these opponents would utilize their sideboard in the entirely wrong fashion. Nice Combust … take three from my Golem token.

This is a different sort of dodge than the Flores example from before, but they both prey on the metagame and players’ expectations. Your list should be able to take advantage of this as well, and you may need to take cues from others’ successes to build your own.

Recognize Your Competitive Level

Try to answer these questions when thinking about your deck:

What is going to fly around the kitchen table?

Probably anything you want. This is the realm of the obnoxious, ten-card combination that never really happens. The story about the time it did work will be told for generations, which is glorious, but these loose lists should probably never be played above this level.

What is going to fly at an FNM?

A Friday Night Magic event is probably the best place to try out your homebrew. Depending on the competition at your local game store, you can test out some crazy ideas. For those who never have, I highly suggest you try it. It is obviously enjoyable to win, but there is something satisfying about playing something crazy. I have personally taken down FNM events with the aforementioned Chalice deck, a deck focused on Rage Extractor, and a deck with Booby Trap back in the day.

If your FNM follows the professional meta a little closer, then you may begin to carefully tune your rogue deck into a solid list. However, this does not count as testing. Do not count it as such.

What is realistic at a higher level event?

These are the events where you are going to drop some real cash. Playing your pet deck at a five dollar Standard event is fine. Taking that same untested and sloppy list to a $40 GP is downright foolish. This may sound obvious, but face it…you have probably done it. At some point in your Magic career, you have allowed the dream bubble to get too big…only to have it popped as you drop to draft after round three. Afterwards, whether it was you playing the bad decision deck, or your friend, you will hear about it. It wasn’t their fault, or the deck’s. It was bad luck. The deck would have done fine if people weren’t playing blah blah blah. You probably chose a poor deck, or you didn’t test the deck correctly.

The Necessity of Testing

Here is the crux of what you need to do as a brewer. Test properly! New Hall of Fame inductee Paulo Vitor Damo da Rosa recently wrote on this very topic. The main points to take out of it were test against the best and test against Aggro. This is perfect advice, yet too few players take the chance to do it. I personally have recently lucked into a pretty stellar testing group, and you should try to find a group for yourself as well. Then play, play, play.

If you built your brew to exploit a hole in the metagame, then you better test that your assumption is true. Any player will argue their opinion with you; just take a look at the daily arguments on Twitter throughout the Magic community. Unfortunately, many players will just tell you how awesome their strange combination is, while blowing off any questions you have about it. Above all, you need to have the ability to take criticism. It’s fine to be confident, but ignoring glaring issues is only going to cost you valuable time and money. There is no specific time when you should retire your brew. Hopefully, you will see the trends quickly (ie no amount of tuning is helping this matchup), but you should establish guidelines for yourself. Set a certain number of games, tuning points, rebuilds, etc. If the deck is not getting better, or beating the decks you need it to … it may be time to end it.

Cautiously Reading into Results, both Good and Bad

You tested your deck … hurray! What does it mean? Well that depends.

You did well. This means your rogue brew bested the format villain and toppled the speediest of aggro decks. This is a definite positive; however, it does not mean that your deck is ready to crush the next PTQ and place you on the fast track to stardom. Make sure you take every testing opportunity to make changes to tune your deck. A veteran Delver player has hundreds of articles and forum posts to scour to help them, you do not. Friends may not be able to help you find the optimal play when they themselves have no idea what you are playing. If you take it upon yourself to truly utilize your results, then perhaps you finally have something special.

Conversely, testing may turn your once promising deck idea into a puddle of depression. This does not mean you should automatically discard the whole deck. Perhaps you can establish the shortcomings to allow your original vision to shine. Sometimes you may stumble on to some other unknown interaction to go forward. Yes, certainly testing may force you to retire some ideas, but the key is to use that information positively to take to your next brew.

Keep Brewing It …

To reiterate, a rogue deck’s strongest quality is its ability to blank an opponent’s spells, play style, or even knowledge about the game. Recently Mike Flores built a deck to do this. His Black and Red concoction played a staggeringly high number of removal spells, and that was it. The deck’s plan was to wait everyone out. Generally though, it could not lose to creature decks. The format has recently featured nothing but Delver and Pod based creature decks. His deck was an exercise in next leveling the competition. This is an extreme case of blanking an opponent’s spells (and one that can easily backfire), but this is another way that you can attack a format and another way that you can get some awesome looks from opponents.

Keep brewing. It is by far the most enjoyable portion of Magic for me. Competitive events are tense and fun, but week in and week out, the chances to play some off-the-wall deck is a real blast. Seeing the look on a player’s face when you crush them with an unsung card is more enjoyable than all the blind delver flips in the world.

Twitter: @Big_Tears

 

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