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Play What You Want to Play, and Let the Cards Fall

Written by Tim Bachmann on . Posted in Competitive Magic, Magic Culture

Play What You Want to Play, and Let the Cards Fall

Tim Bachmann

Hailing from northeast Pennsylvania, Tim has been playing since Mirrodin, and has been playing competitively since Dragons of Tarkir. With aspirations of playing on the Pro Tour, Tim plays in as many PPTQs and GPs as he can.

So I played in a PPTQ this past weekend. Ever on my quest to qualify for a Pro Tour, I played 4C Rally again. I had a middling performance, going 4-2. I missed top-8 on breakers, ending up at eleventh place. I saw a lot more named players than I had seen at previous PPTQ or IQ events in the area, and that might have something to do with its proximity to the Philadelphia area and the lack of other events going on in the area. Names such as Rob Vaughan, Chris Pikula, Rudy Briksza, along with the regular area grinders showed up, which was really neat. This was also the first time I was recognized at an event, which was and still is a bit surreal. My round 5 opponent, Ananth, remembered me from an IQ I had played in a few weeks previous. It was pretty cool, feeling like I had been performing well enough for other people to recognize my face as not just another guy slinging sixty cards on a Saturday.

While I performed better at this event than at my previous PPTQ, where I went 2-3 drop, I came to a few realizations. The first one, is that I don’t play enough Magic. Now, not everyone who competes at the local PPTQ or IQ plays Magic Online. However, I would imagine that at the highest level of PPTQs or IQs, the average top 8 player plays Magic either in paper form or digital form a lot more than I do throughout the week. Either playtesting with friends almost nightly to try and spike the weekend event, or practicing online through constructed queues or drafts, I feel like my performances suffer from both a lack of practice and a lack of experience with different interactions when I sit down at an event on the weekend.

So how do I remedy this? As a professional with a full time job that sometimes require I work more than 40 hours a week, and as a man with a family that requires time be committed to my children and wife, I don’t have the flexible schedule that my friends have, so playing more paper Magic is pretty much off the table. After discussing things with my wife, I’ll finally be joining the ranks online. If my goal or yours is to make the Pro Tour, I think practicing online is where you should start.

Not only does Magic Online provide the benefit of just playing more Magic whenever you want, whenever you’re feeling the itch, it provides you with a tool from which you are able to experience more interactions with your decks than just experiencing them on a weekly basis at either FNM or an IQ are able to. This happened to me at my PPTQ actually.

As an anecdote, I have been playing Rally since Oath of the Gatewatch was released. That’s been a few weeks now. However, I had never played against some of the more popular decks of the format to experience these distinct matchups. In particular, I had never played against the U/R Prowess deck. Because of this, I made a lot of mistakes in my matchup against it in round 2 of my last PPTQ to start the day with a 1-1 record.

I feel like if I had spent time to build the rally deck online, and jam games when I’m not doing something important with my time, I would have had some sentiment about how that matchup should go. Instead, I tried to fly by the seat of my pants, and I got scorched as a result.

So that’s fine, Tim. Shut up and play Magic Online already. You’re only like a decade behind in realizing this. Sure sure, and I didn’t want to make this article just a plug for Magic Online. What I’m trying to express is that if one is trying to win PPTQs and IQs, it seems, the way to practice most efficiently is to play Magic Online. The End.

But wait, there’s more! The real thing I wanted to talk about was deck selection. As a Spike, it’s really easy to hear someone, anyone really, make the claim that “deck X is the best deck in the format” and play it, especially since I haven’t had, up to this point, a way to test it against the format (a way, say, like Magic Online!). Let’s take a look at decks that I remember playing in the past, both recent and distant, and you’ll see what I mean:

-Ravager Affinity – Standard
-BG Rock – Extended
-UR Twin – Modern
-UWr Miracles – Legacy
-Jeskai Black – Standard
-4C Rally – Standard

My memory is not great, and I’m intentionally leaving some decks out, but at the point at which I had played any of these decks, they had been considered “the best deck in the format.” Now, that’s not to say I haven’t had success with these decks. I had gotten second place at a PPTQ, and was one win away from winning that event with UR Twin, and I had a couple of top 8s at IQs with Jeskai Black.

Other than dominating FNMs, the other decks weren’t that great to me. And I think after this weekend playing Rally again, I understand a few reasons that may have been and are causing me to not perform particularly well when playing the best deck in a given format.

1). Hate Cards – Without the practice of something like, say, Magic Online, fighting through targeted hate cards that people are bringing to the table specifically to beat the best deck, the deck that I’m playing, is very difficult. Not to say it can’t be done, because if it couldn’t be done, these decks probably wouldn’t be considered the best decks. But when I don’t have experience against a deck packing both Dispel and Kalitas, Traitor of Ghet, it’s pretty difficult to craft a game plan on the fly to beat those cards.

2). Play skill vs. Power – Now this is the line that is most blurred, and where the “best” deck gets the boost. Most of the time, the best deck is playing either the most powerful cards or the most powerful strategy, and is most likely able to steal games more than other decks because of this. However, I feel like this is a trap. One that I fall into. Sure you can steal games, and this gives you the illusion that you’re playing the deck correctly when in fact you’re probably not playing the deck either optimally or correctly.

This is something I think I’ve noticed about the Rally deck. While the deck is very strong, I feel like I’m able to steal games because of the combo aspect of the deck, but if I’m forced to play a fair game without Collected Company or Rally, either because of hate cards like Anafenza, the Foremost, or general good cards against this strategy, like Negate or Dispel, I feel like the deck just isn’t good. Which probably means I’m doing something wrong. And this leads into my final point:

3). Playstyle – I had always liked to think that I had a wide range of decks I either could play or liked to play. I always thought that given any deck, I could probably pilot it well. However, the more I think about it, the more I think this is untrue. While it would be nice to play any given deck at a Pro Tour level, I am not (currently!) a Pro Tour player. It doesn’t make sense for me to be able to play any style of deck effectively.

What does make sense is that I play whatever deck I choose to play well. And the way that is able to manifest itself most is to play a consistent style of Magic. The more I look at other people’s’ results, people I look up to, people I think are good, and I know this isn’t necessarily a good barometer for my own play, these people are typically playing the same decks or same style of decks. Kevin Jones is Jeskai guy. Michael Derczo always plays Death and Taxes, and never plays blue cards. Gerard Fabiano was playing Esper Dragons forever, and is the real life Sidisi, King of Sultai in eternal formats. Reid Duke is Miracles and Jund guy (most of the time). Patrick Sullivan is burning man. Patrick Dickmann was Twin dude. It goes on and on.

It seems that alongside practice, sticking to a particular style of deck is an effective way to improve as a player. Your plan almost never changes, you’re already pre-built with an instinct for matchups, and this familiarity I feel is a good way to hedge against the unknown. It has been said time and time again, a well-practiced tier 2 deck and pilot is far better than any tier 1 deck with an inexperienced pilot.

My focus going forward will be to play either an aggressive style combo deck, something like Infect in Modern and Legacy, or R/G Landfall in Standard, or a tempo-ish style deck leaning either aggressive or midrange, something like Jeskai in standard, and some kind of Scalding Tarn deck in Modern. I love Lightning Bolt, I love efficient counterspells, I love playing at instant speed, I love Jace, Vryn’s Prodigy, and I really love Blue and Red cards. I feel like I would be able to improve my play more if I was more enthusiastic about the decks I was playing, and I think that these reasons I just stated are the reasons I had success with Twin and Landfall. They were just a blast to play, they played my favorite types of strategies and cards, and because of this, I was able to outplay more opponents than I think I’m able to outplay with the Rally deck.

So what’s the point of all of this? What’s the takeaway? Not playing the best deck isn’t always incorrect. Metagames fluctuate, matchups in a given event aren’t pre-determined, and anyone has to run a little hot to win any given event. Life is too short to play cards you don’t enjoy playing. Aside from all of the realizations made above, the real reason I started to think about all of this little things was Pro Tour Oath of the Gatewatch. I went from seeing my favorite Modern deck banned, to seeing this incredibly powerful, non-interactive format take a nose-dive into almost unplayability with these new Eldrazi decks.

I was thinking that I should build these decks, based on the cards I already have that would go into them. I ultimately decided against this. Sure it’s probably the most powerful deck now, but A – I don’t want to have my heart ripped out again if I fall in love with the deck and it gets banned, and B – I don’t even think I could fall in love with this deck. I love fetching for lands and playing colored spells. Playing big dumb idiot creatures stupidly fast and being non-interactive is not something I enjoy doing. I like to interact by either protecting my battleship creature, or by controlling my opponent with counterspells and burn cards and efficient creatures.

This is almost the same way I feel about Rally. I’m playing this deck, and the deck is good, sure, but it’s not what I’m about. I’m not Bant guy, I’m Izzet Guy. I’m not Abzan guy, I’m Jeskai guy. I’m not Jund guy, I’m Grixis guy. Remember, this is a game, and to most of us, a hobby. If you’re not enjoying what you’re playing, you’re probably doing it wrong. Just play the cards and strategies you love, and if you practice correctly and practice enough, surely success should be just ahead of you.

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