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Arena Diaries #4 – Take a Number

What makes a good Magic player?

I’ve been asking myself this question a lot recently, since starting to take the game more seriously. I don’t have a definitive answer. It seems to just be a lot of little things. 

Patient, thoughtful play, maybe? What about choosing the right deck to take on the meta? A strong mental game and the ability to avoid tilt? 

The question runs through my mind as I beat my opponent with a 10/10 Healer’s Hawk and take myself up another percentage point in the Mythic rankings, desperate to get a number.

My goal for May was to reach Mythic, but after getting there I felt I should try to get higher, but it continues to evade me. 

Standard is in a strange spot right now and I don’t have any of the answers. Do better players just know something I don’t? How can they tell that a specific deck will line up well against a metagame, and why is it that when I follow their advice, I lose anyway?

Do you ever get the feeling that Reid Duke would win with 59 mountains and a 6 of diamonds, while you struggle with soon-to-be-banned cards that are as broken as anything we’ve seen in the last five years? I sure do.

Selesnya Auras though, doesn’t require lots of thinking. It’s fun, it’s simple and it’s fast. I’m reverting to the strategy that got me to Mythic in the first place and I’m seeing some success, but it won’t last. A few games later I’m losing to Agent of Treachery with alarming regularity. 

Time to get out of standard. Historic has been fun so maybe that’s the way up the ranks. Along the way, I think, I’ll test my deck building ability and see if I can put something together that can compete in an emerging metagame. 

It starts with Reanimator. Unburial Rites is a heck of a Magic card, as is Ulamog, so putting them both in a deck together should be a good time.

I’m sure the pros do the same thing, look at the cards to build around and go from there. The deck turns out to be surprisingly effective. No matter the format, an early Ulamog spells disaster for most opponents and with Zetalpa as backup, this list starts to rack up wins. 

Heartening. We could be on to something. The deck starts off as Orzhov but soon the addition of Merfolk Secretkeeper, Chart a Course and Thirst for Meaning make Esper feel more consistent. 

Unburial Rights

With some success, it seemed reasonable to try other things out, why not push the envelope and see if Phyrexian Obliterator, a clearly ridiculous card, can win games. 

A playset of Back for More and every half-decent fight card in the format later, plus some ramp gave this one a combo feel. It was christened Phyrexian Fight Club. 

Phyrexian Fight Club

Once again, just building around powerful cards did powerful things. It seems obvious in hindsight. The pros aren’t that much smarter than the rest of us, they just know where to start, I thought. Adding Gyruda as the companion gave the deck an extra punch and it started dominating. I was shocked. Had I cracked the format?

It didn’t take long to realize that someone else had already done that, in standard. Historic games suddenly turned into battles against Jeskai Lukka and Naya Winota. There was no beating them. Between Agent of Treachery and Yorion, it felt like I’d been followed into another format.

Agent was stalking me. I couldn’t escape the masked menace. 

Historic’s time was up. With bans looming and the season about to end, it was time for one last push. I returned to Standard.

I hoped for some fun games playing a deck I liked, so I just threw the last few wildcards needed at Mardu Sacrifice, a deck I’d struggled with before thanks to mana issues. Now, armed with all the Godless Shrines I could muster, I felt ready.

Was it a good metagame choice? I have no idea. A good metagame choice would likely be Jeskai Lukka or Mono-Red, since I was playing best-of-one. There is an alternative argument though, that playing a deck you know well can be more effective than a better deck you don’t pilot properly. 

Mardu Sacrifice

That strategy worked for a while. Mardu Sacrifice did its thing effectively and I was able to rattle off a few wins in a row. I even nailed some complicated lines to close out games from nowhere. The deck felt great, until, inevitably, it didn’t.

Sometimes on Arena you feel as though the meta is but sands shifting beneath your feet as the strategies that worked not an hour earlier can barely compete.

That’s how it felt losing to Naya Winota.

The Jeskai version was bad enough, but Winota with ramp stung, enough that I tried it myself. Losing from absolutely nowhere to Neoform on a Charming Prince into Legion Warboss triggering Winota into Agent… it feels brutal. I wanted to deliver that brutality.

I lost the first game I tried to Jeskai Lukka. Then I lost the next three to it.

I tried Jeskai Lukka myself next, watching my ranking go from 94% back down to 90%, and faced, of all things, Mardu Sacrifice. 

I lost, the sands shifting again; quicksand, sucking me ever deeper down. This season I won’t be a number, but I’ll take being a percentage. 

Maybe that’s not what a great Magic player would do, but for now, it’s good enough for me.

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