Maximum Success, Minimum Testing

Written by Chase Keaten on . Posted in Competitive Magic, Modern

I recently had the pleasure of attending GP Lincoln 2012, or as many of my twitter brethren referred to it, #gphoth.  While I didn’t have to cut open any furry mammals to save my friends, I faced a few problems of my own while on the somewhat icy, not so tundra-esque landscape.  My main problem was figuring out how to maximize my chances of success at a large event that I did not have the time to prepare for.

My plans to attend GP Lincoln materialized only a few scant weeks before the event itself.  I had no idea what I was going to play, card availability was an issue, and I had no time to test.  I was stuck between a rock and a hard place… what to build?  What to buy/trade for?  My idea was to try predicting the metagame while I was still a few weeks out so that I would still have a chance and not have to finance a deck from the dealers at the event site.

There were a few key things I had going for me.  Information is so readily available these days it’s almost mind boggling. This may date me a little, but I remember days where the “metagame” was figuring out how to beat Jimmy’s counter burn deck while not losing to a horde of elves on the other side of the table at the local sports card shop.  Then, networking was done the face to face/handshake to handshake way.  Now, we have a ton of great websites (some emerging, some well established) that have voices that the community rallies around and that the metagame tilts on like an axis.  The information that I had so far showed me a few distinct things:

Storm and Splinter Twin (the UR Combo decks) were the decks to beat a few weeks before GP Lincoln. To combat Storm and Splinter Twin, the crop of aggro/control decks filled with cheap answers and threats (Faeries, Modern Caw-Blade, Jund) began to occupy the top tier of the metagame.

Keep in mind I’m still two weeks out, so I have to decide how much the metagame is going to shift from there.  I’m aware of about 6-10 decks at this time, and I anticipate the metagame is going to reach a fork in the road around the time that GP Lincoln happens.  If the aggro/control decks stayed on top of the MTGO daily events, the articles, and the general buzz then GP Lincoln would be filled with a lot of decks that will prey on the aggro/control and midrange decks.

The best decks in a position to really hurt the trio of Faeries, Caw-Blade and Jund would be UW Tron.  It can go bigger and has a lot of inevitability -Melira Combo/Pod – It’s resiliant and given the time can beat almost any creature based strategy -Affinity – It has the best “fast” draws in the format and can really put a turn 1 hurting on decks looking to finish around turn ten or so.

I had my metagame read.  I expected a fair amount of UW Tron (even larger as more videos and articles are posted by the channelfireball team,) a fair amount of Affinity, and a large amount of Melira Combo/Pod.  In addition to that, I expect less than half of the field to not shift with the metagame (so they will still be on aggro/control and midrange) and about 15% to just play the deck they have the cards for or know the best.

I initially settled on UW Tron because I have played Gifts Ungiven Tron before and felt that Eye of Ugin + Emrakul, the Aeons Torn would put me in the best position to do unfair things to decks that weren’t killing me fast enough.  I proceeded to acquire cards for the deck to solve my card availability issues and began testing.

Here are my general rules for testing on a time limit:

Don’t reinvent the wheel.

I am a huge fan of attacking the metagame from an unexpected place but the juice isn’t worth the squeeze if you haven’t tested your matchups.  I have to resist the ‘bring your own brew’ urge most of the times I start shuffling cards seriously.  You could approach from the wrong angle, you don’t know the cards that matter and what matters most.  Also, if your metagame read is off in the slightest you give yourself zero chance to win.

Do something unfair/non interactive.

This is constructed magic.  Many people will bring off the wall decks.  Some may even do well with them.  You need to have a good plan that doesn’t care about what your opponent is choosing to do or not do.  This style of deck is recommended because when you are doing unfair things, you have “oops I win draws” and you are normally drawing live cards every turn even when you are behind.

Don’t be public enemy number one.

During the reign of standard Affinity, or standard Caw Blade, it was probably wrong to *not* shuffle up those decks.  Those are the two times that I can think of in recent history where it was smart to play the best deck.  However, if you choose to play the best deck you better believe that people will know how to sideboard against you, and what your primary plans and secondary plans are.  They will have a good idea of what cards they have that will impact the match the most.  Sometimes, it’s right to play the best deck.  But if you don’t have time to test, don’t bother because many will know more than you do and will have much better plans.

Play your style.

When I attempt to mentor or help the up and coming local players, the first thing I try to do is force them out of their comfort zone.  If they are always shuffling up control, I hand them aggro.  If they have a mind bent on burn and attacking, I hand them control or aggro control.  I am a huge believer in changing the style of deck you play to learn how to play against it and to create a more well rounded theory in how you see the game.  We are all influenced by the cards we remember fondly, the decks that we did best with, and we begin to form a natural bias toward those decks.  When you don’t have time to test, try to play a deck that is at or near your favorite style of play.  All the subconscious decisions that you make over the course of the game will be more correct more often because of it.  You’ll be right more often, even if it’s because of the wrong reasons.  Your instincts will naturally be stronger.

Understand your matchups.

This one is tricky, because you don’t really have time to test.  But in general you need to know what you’re pursuing against either the established decks of the metagame, or the styles of the decks that you will face.  For example, once I was on UW Tron I knew that I had to understand my poorest matchups (the non interactive combo decks, Storm and Splinter Twin were both decks I didn’t want to see).  I also had to understand that generally if I saw a Squadron Hawk or a Mutavault I was excited to be up against Faeries or Caw Blade.  Delver decks without hand disruption were generally good matchups.  Delver decks with hand disruption were far worse.  Therefore hand disruption was more or less the equivalent to the devil.

Test the matchups that are closer to even.

I don’t agree with theories that a certain matchup is 60/40 or 50/50 because those numbers are essentially meaningless.  Who was piloting?  What angle were they attacking or defending from?  How aggressively did they mulligan?  With certain draws considered on both sides of the table, even nightmare matchups become wins for the underdog.  However, there are matchups that tend to run closer to even.  With the few matches you have to test, test these.  You need to see what it takes to pull out close games, and if you test the matchups that are closer to even you will gain knowledge on how to stay ahead, and how to catch up from behind that will apply in many other matchups and scenarios for your deck.  To put it another way, if you could only watch your favorite basketball or football team play five games, I would argue that you would learn far more from watching five close games than you would from watching five blowouts (from either side of the ball.)  It’s the close ones that show the character of a team, just like it’s the close games that display the characteristics of a deck.

Pick a deck that puts the hurt on some decks, even if it folds to other decks.

This last one is the hardest for me, personally.  I like having a deck that has a chance against everything.  I never want to sit across from an opponent and be dead just because the pairings weren’t favorable.  I like giving myself the ability to outplay someone.  I’m far from the best player in the world, but I am confident and experienced enough to see different lines and make different plays that can barely eek out the closer matchups.  Do not do this if your testing time is limited.  The price you pay for power is consistency.  Sometimes this is consistency in draws, sometimes it is consistency in matchups.  Normally with the really powerful decks they have consistency issues on both a matchup and an individual draw level.  Accept this and move on.

To pull out of those explanations…something felt wrong about UW Tron.  I had acquired all the cards, but it just didn’t feel like I had a deck that was “oops, I win” enough for me to succeed in Modern on practically zero testing.  I was breaking one of my own rules – I wasn’t being degenerate enough.  My deck relied on too much interaction.

In the mire of this uncertainty, one of my friends tapped my shoulder and showed me a UR Tron list that had just taken down a MTGO daily.  UR Tron had a very similar plan to UW Tron, but it had the blowout potential of an early Through the Breach with a colossal Eldrazi.  I wasn’t changing my deck much, and it was both inexpensive and practical for me to switch.  Also, UR Tron would advantage me in the mirror, because Through the Breach is so much more meaningful to the board than anything UW can do early.

In the end, I settled on this list:

Now, you didn’t read my name in lights so the deck didn’t take the tourney by storm or anything, but I did day two and I was a match or two away from cashing – which for a tourney that I tested all of fifteen games with (seven against Affinity, seven against Jund, one against Caw Blade) I felt proud of the result.  I am not trying to encourage mediocrity here, just showing that you can have a day job, hit a Grand Prix, and finish at or near the money.  Instead of a full tournament report, here are some highlights:

Day One

-Played my nightmare matchups, Twin and Storm, five times…went a total of 4-1 in matches against them (#worstmatchupsometimes?) -Against the storm deck I lost to, it played much like Twin game one due to not having enough early cantrips.  They did nothing turn four and I thought I was in the clear until my opponent cast Gifts Ungiven for red rituals and other storm cards at the end of my turn and proceeded to go off.  I had a Remand but he wasn’t on Past In Flames (was instead on Empty the Warrens.)  Game two I correctly predicted my opponent transforming into Twin and brought in Combusts.  A Combust stopped him cold and he was shocked I made the read on him transforming.  I was the shocked one when he had it again the next turn.

-I lost to Faeries because I was unfamiliar with the cards.  I had no idea Scion of Oona gave all other Faeries Shroud (doesn’t that look like flavor text to you too?.)  I didn’t know that Spellstutter Sprite was a hard counter (I thought it was like Condescend,) and I ran a much needed Expedition Map right into one.  I had the tools to fight but I did not because I didn’t read the card twice.  This is a match I could have and should have won.  Should have gotten into Day 2 with only 1 loss, putting me into the UW Tron bracket…

-Against both Zoo and Boros, I lived because I had Through the Breach where I would have died in either matchup if I was on UW Tron.  Path to Exile is great, annihilator triggers are better (and with hindsight being 20/20, Gifts Ungiven for Elesh Norn, Grand Cenobite + Unburial Rites is probably best). -Finished 7-2 on the day

Day Two

-First matchup is the UR Tron mirror.  I lose game one to him casting Through the Breach early, then following up with Wurmcoil Engine.  I win game two with the same Breach shenanigans.  Game three is cat and mouse, but I can never draw meaningful card draw (no Gifts, no Thirst) or threats.  I am lucky enough to have three Through the Breach in hand, though.  I have enough disruption to keep from getting run over but my opponent has seen more cards than me.  When it’s obvious he’s not going for Eye of Ugin (I know he has Emrakul already because he broke an Expedition Map for another Urza’s Tower when he had full Tron on board) I start making him fight.  At the end of his next two turns, I cast Through the Breach without any Eldrazi in hand.  He counters, I counter back, and eventually allow him to Gifts for counters, get counters, and counter my Through the Breach.  He’s tapped out for my turn, I can draw Gifts or Eldrazi to win right there (or Thirst into Eldrazi, would have to wait if it was Thirst into Gifts).  I of course draw Noxious Revival.  I kept on baiting his resources and letting him win the counter fights.  I see him counting his mana during my turn, and I know the end is near.  He casts Emrakul, and I concede the game/match.  He wipes the sweat from his brow and says something like “good/close match.”  I revealed my hand of another Through the Breach and a Noxious Revival and smile.  I had to play to my outs – but my outs did not want to play with me.

-I proceeded to drop every other match I played on day two due to a mixture of me not mulliganing aggressively enough, not knowing the format, or other punts that I’m still trying to figure out as I piece together my broken and shattered ego from the floor of #gphoth on day two.  I never promised a happy ending (or a sad one.)

My story aside, I hope this helps you win a tournament someday that you have no business winning.  Thanks for reading.  Feedback is always welcome and encouraged.

-Chase chasekeaten on Twitter

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