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Never Perfect: Realistic Preparatory Precision

Written by Zach Cramer on . Posted in Competitive Magic, Standard

Never Perfect: Realistic Preparatory Precision

Zach Cramer

Zach is a Northeastern Magic grinder who specializes in eternal formats. When building decks, he has a strong preference to Blue cards, toolboxes and combo decks. With a recent RPTQ finish just short of an invitation, Zach hopes to take his skills to the next level and play on the Pro Tour.

It’s “release week” and my standard cards are still floating in the mail. Because I don’t have all the pieces for a deck, I decide to just build off of something I already own. I slide two copies of God-Eternal Kefnet in my old Blue Red Drakes deck from two seasons ago. I add a Narset and a Saheeli to my sideboard. After a really smooth performance in a very casual Standard Showdown, I talk to my teammates about the list.

This is where it starts: each and every week, players take an idea: any idea; silly ones, serious ones, or thoughts from Magic content and start to get to work. A week of testing, tuning, and tournaments is ahead of you every time you start to work these ideas. This week, I’d like to give you specific insight about how I came up with my decklist for last weekend’s MCQ in Laurel Maryland.

After Standard Showdown, I sit down with my teammates and take a look at the list. Over the last few months, people smarter than myself have put a lot of time into how to optimize the list. This makes the process pretty easy. Oftentimes, you’ll be working with a deck that feels like it has plenty of flex slots, especially with brews. In the current Standard format, there seems to be endless options for each card, each slot on the curve, but, a closer inspection makes quick work of this thought.

Take for example the Drakes cantrips: Opt, Chart a Course and Discovery/Dispersal run circles around Tormenting Voice, Radical Idea, Crash Through, Warlord’s Fury, Contentious Plan and the immense list. The reason is because removing the Arclight Phoenix package reduces the burden of having discard outlets. Once you become aware that your priority is sifting for the strongest cards rather than putting a premium on discard outlets or expediting your card velocity and graveyard size, you’ll be down to the correct cards much more quickly. If you spend time thinking about what your plan is rather than what your deck could be doing.

The same is true when looking at Green two drops, or Red burn spells. Deciding between Growth-Chamber Guardian and Thorn Lieutenant or Chandra, Flame Artisan and Risk Factor is not a process of learning which card is better than the other, it’s a process of deciphering what the role of your card is intended to be. When making modifications to lists, think about what a card is helping you do, or what it’s standing in the way of.

Spell Pierce feels GREAT right now, it forces you opponent to wait so long to deploy their 3 mana planeswalkers and helps counter the clunky removal spells like Mortify, Conclave Tribunal and Vraska’s Contempt.”

This is my dominant idea on Sunday. Having access to Spell Pierce and Shock is my plan for the newly emergent dominance of Mono Red. Spell Pierce seems to be live against most every deck brought to SCG Richmond and Shock seems to still be the most efficient removal spell for Thief of Sanity, Hero of Precinct One, Runaway Steam-Kin and Ghitu Lavarunner. A bit of theory crafting brings us to a retooling of Andrew Jessup’s Invitational Winning UR Drakes deck from two seasons ago. We sleeve this new idea up and start playing some games. Before long, we’ve found our first Puzzle:

Teferi, Time Raveler EMBARASSES Dive Down decks. Teferi comes down and bounces our Drake and then stops us from being able to protect other Drakes with Dive Down or cast other countermagic like Spell Pierce, Negate, or Disdainful Stroke which challenges the Teferi, Hero of Dominaria counterplay we have. Narset also serves a similar problem, but, in a less dangerous way. We cannot cantrip multiple times a turn, which is damaging, but, at least we can play threats and protect them.

At this point in my week, I can put down Drakes or try and adapt. This is a critical point in the testing process. You have to gauge how much time you can put into a project before you throw it away. It’s only Sunday at this point, so I decide to keep pressing on with Drakes. After much deliberation, we determined that playing countermagic in the sideboard was a weak approach. It was playing into Teferi’s hands. Moreover, so was 3 copies of Dive Down. Legion Warboss is our initial answer to the problem.

We slot in two in place of the previously sideboarded Disdainful Strokes. Warboss comes down and pressures Teferi, providing a 1/1 haste if he minuses and keeps multiple bodies if he plusses. Thanks, Jon! After a couple of post board games, Spell Pierce cleans up most of the Teferis and Warboss and Saheeli help us go wide to weaken the minus. It’s easy to assume someone would just slam Teferi on 3, but, we also decide to test what happens when you hold Teferi until you can pay for Pierce. If our opponent slams Teferi on 3, Spell Pierce can punish it, but, if our opponent waits to establish Teferi, we can try to punish our opponent with the extra time they give us. Saheeli’s importance shines here as her ability to make tokens incidentally while being able to be protected by Spell Pierce grants us a playable Maximize Velocity of sorts. Playing the token and then resolving a Drake lets you minus Saheeli for a hastey Drake if you have a token in play already. Taking stock of what we’ve learned here for a moment: Early pressure is what makes Spell Pierce strong. Getting under the opposing decks is how you force them to play into Spell Pierce.

Looking at more ways to address the problem matchups and tune the deck towards the post-SCG Richmond metagame, A friend suggests Lightning Strike in some quantity. After some thought, Strike does several critical things:

#1: It offers more flexibility in timing, allowing me to hold up Spell Pierce for History of Benalia or Light up the Stage while still being able to kill a Benalish Marshall or a Goblin Chainwhirler without losing much tempo.
#2: Burn spells kill planeswalkers. It’s not pretty to Shock and Strike a Teferi, Time Reveler, but, it works. Most importantly, Narset is a huge thorn in the side of cantrip decks. However, a minused Narset is right in Strike range.
#3: Lightning Strike is not dead versus Nexus. The polarity of the format is key at this point. You’re either playing against a control deck or Nexus deck that blanks your removal or an aggressively slanted Red or White deck that punishes you for not having something to stop them. Spell Pierce, thankfully, fits the bill versus everything, but, it’s becoming painfully obvious that Lava Coil is a liability.

There’s not a cost for skipping on Coil. Missing adapted Growth-Chamber Guardians, Rekindling Phoenixes, and the majority of Gruul’s threats has a cost, but, I firmly believe that the pressure that Strike offers is important. Thanks, Alex!

I commit to pausing my preparation on Friday to relax myself with friends and family who can take my mind off the stress of late-week decision making. I have a 3 hour drive to spend in my own head, I could use the space for a while. Saturday comes and I’m up early with my entire collection in the back of my car. I queue up the podcasts, call up the group chats and get back into the tank. Looking at the current Drake threat base: it’s clunky. 4 3s, 6 4s, and 2 6s is a tall order. To make matters worse, none of them can be found off of Search activations or Narset activations and so we’re under quite a bit of pressure for our cantrips to find them quickly and in the right number. I’m nearly to the venue when I find the missing piece, and I thankfully brought 4.

Burning Prophet.

Burning Prophet foots the bill perfectly. A 1/3 body offers the same protection that Augur of Bolas might, while the scry and pump mechanic from casting non-creature spells does several vital things:

#1: It increases the threat of the Prophet more than Augur or Pteramander.
#2: scrys us to useful planeswalkers, creature threats, and mana without passing over them like Augur and the Sunken Ruin are prone to do.
#3: The fact that it costs two mana requires my Nexus opponent to spend 3 mana adding another counter to Blast Zone, which gives us another turn cycle of damage before they timewalk themselves to blow it up.

It seems to perfectly balance the plans that I had put together for the day and I didn’t come to it until I knew exactly what I was trying to do.

After 7 Rounds, I have a reasonable record of 5-2 with a deck that no one has come to the table with. I conquered two Mono Red deck, Esper Hero, and two Simic Nexus with the following:

What I wanted to share with you all today is not that this deck is the best deck in the format: it’s certainly not. What I wanted to share was the process. This tournament further reinforced the idea that every tournament we play in provides the illusion that we can get everything right. We cannot. Scientists have just proven that Magic: The Gathering is the most complex game ever created. You cannot create a program to solve Magic and therefore we should not aim for absolute perfection in our analysis. We should strive for information, for knowledge and for growth. Through my testing, valuable teammates, and trusted friends, I was able to come up with answers to the problems I encountered over the course of the week and I registered what I firmly believe to be the best deck that I could have registered given the direction I took my week.

Someone else is going to write an article that tells you what deck you’re supposed to focus on building, but, that person is not me. This article is to share that my week was spent problem solving. My week was spent conferring with teammates about matchups, noting cards that gave me difficulty and putting theories about cards like Spell Pierce and Lightning Strike to the test. I will try to emulate the process of taking the best path with the information I have each and every week. Striving to do your best with what is available to you should never be seen as failure, and, with proper preparation, you set yourself up to be in a position to win every week.

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