“They reached the bottom. All around them, a sea of lifeless bodies. Scattered amongst the fallen; [card]Eye of the Storm[/card], [card]Experiment Krag[/card], [card]Confusion in the Ranks[/card], and [card]Chandra Ablaze[/card].”
Remember kids, going deep* is fun, but every once in awhile, you need to remember to come up for air.
There was a time in my Magic career when someone convincing me of the above statement could have very well improved my results. On the other hand, maybe I would have never gotten to where I am today. It isn’t fun to sit on the side of the boat, looking down at what might be happening below the surface. Is it safer? Yep. Is it fun? Not nearly as much.
At the end of the day, we all started playing Magic because we enjoy it. No one started playing with the hopes of winning a Pro Tour or making the Hall of Fame.
I agree that there is certainly a time to put away the toys and bust out the big guns, having done it myself more recently than ever before, but occasionally, I just want to have some fun and going deep is all about fun. Still, there are benefits to going deep that translate to competitive play.
*The phrase “Going Deep” is intended to reference taking anything to its extreme. If you ate four cheeseburgers, someone might claim you “went deep.” In deckbuilding terms, going deep specifically refers to your willingness and effort to find outliers—cards, decks, or ideas, and put them into action. Playing with, or even just considering, some strange or “bad” cards for a deck might be labeled “Going Deep.”
For example, the number of cards that see competitive play is relatively small compared to the total number of possible cards in a format. Standard probably has about 10% of the card pool see some amount of play if I had to guess, and as you go back into older formats, that number decreases. When you explore less conventional strategies, the boundaries expand.
Of course, you have to evaluate those options correctly and understand what is valuable where. Obviously a card is not just inherently good if no one else is playing it. The opposite, actually, is more likely to be true, so it is up to you to prove its worth in the metagame.
Once you do discover something special, you have access to information few, if any, other people have. And, to compound that further, the “secret” information you have is potentially just more impactful than other ways you can gain this edge. Compare running [card]Glissa, the Traitor[/card] in a deck for what is essentially the first time ever to Delver running one copy of [card]Unsummon[/card] instead of a [card]Gut Shot[/card]. In both cases, the person discovered a single card that others are not tuned to.
In the one scenario, the [card]Unsummon[/card] player is doing things his deck already does, just at a better rate. The Glissa player is introducing an entirely new element to a deck and potentially the format. The [card]Unsummon[/card] player is safer in that his card is just a 5th copy of [card]Vapor Snag[/card] which is proven and strong, but the Glissa player, while taking more of a gamble, has a higher upside available as reward should everything come up Black.
Concepts Over Cards
Going deep can actually help a player learn the format with more confidence. One might think that spending time looking at cards and decks that are fringe would not result in knowing the true confines of the format—in isolation, that’s right. It’s important that before you go deep, you get to know the best decks, the best cards, and the current metagame. You might not know why a deck plays 3 [card]Lightning Bolt[/card] and 4 [card]Electrolyze[/card], but that’s fine. Hopefully that is what we are about to tackle. The important thing is having a grasp on the base of the format before pushing to the fringe areas.
Once you have done that, exploring lesser-played strategies and cards helps you to know WHY cards are good in a format as opposed to just knowing WHAT cards are good in a format. I include [card]Lightning Bolt[/card] in my deck because it is a good card. Even when it is not at its best, it’s going to produce results due to its raw power level. If I am including [card]Gloom Surgeon[/card], I have a goal with it in mind—but without testing, I can’t really know if it is going to accomplish that goal. There aren’t thousands of players doing my testing for me.
So naturally, we test. While we test the card, we cannot simply conclude that games won in which [card]Gloom Surgeon[/card] was played were won because of [card]Gloom Surgeon[/card], so instead, we need to pay attention to what [card]Gloom Surgeon[/card] is doing for us. Through this, we can see where he does well or poorly, then reevaluate his value. Is there something that brings the positives of [card]Gloom Surgeon[/card] without the negatives? If no, does [card]Gloom Surgeon[/card] stack up on his own? If yes, what are those options? Then, repeat the whole process for each of those cards. You are specifically looking for tasks that need to be completed and then applying the best available card to the task, rather than taking cards for raw power level or prestige. Context is everything.
This method will have you stop thinking in terms of, “you need four [card]Lightning Bolt[/card]s in that deck,” and rather, “You need four cheap removal spells in that deck.” [card]Lightning Bolt[/card] might come back as the best possible card for the task in 9 out of 10 scenarios, which is why it has become the go-to card for said job, but it won’t always be correct. Sometimes you need [card]Virulent Wound[/card] in your infect deck, or [card]Vapor Snag[/card] for your Delver deck. Those cards seem like accepted cards now, but at one point in time, when that first person showed up with 4 copies of [card]Vapor Snag[/card] in his Constructed deck, he was most certainly accused of going deep and I am glad he did.
For the Deck Builder in Your Life, or Just the Person with a Lot of Time on Their Hands!
Going deep is not necessarily deckbuilding. It can become a routine with your deckbuilding and it will often be associated with it, but it can very easily be a facet of deck tuning as well. If you are working on Caw Blade, it takes a little bit of courage and a little bit of outside the box thinking to suggest a third color. The deck was possibly the strongest deck of all time and some dude thinks it can be improved on?
Well, it turns out that dude was wrong in the long run, but Caw Blade with red and with black both became respectable decks. The general consensus was that UW Caw Blade was always king, but in the right metagame or in the right matchup, you would certainly prefer one of the three-color versions.
No new deck was created. No one busted out [card]Warp World[/card] or [card]Archive Trap[/card], and yet, I would still say this movement, at least in its infancy, was going deep. It questioned a deck with such prestige, something very few people were still doing at that point, as Caw Blade had proven itself a winner. If it ain’t broke…
Sometimes, changing one card or one package out of a deck will be your original intent. Remember, you aren’t a “deckbuilder,” but then after some tweaking and tuning, that swapped out package or card leads to another, to another, and eventually, you have but a shell of your former deck. That type of cascade will start coming naturally as you are willing to expand your boundaries a bit and become a more well-versed player and builder.
As With All Things
Going deep is not a core strategy that you need to be familiar with at any early stage of deckbuilding or tuning. You should always be rooted in a strong foundation first. This means things like building mana bases correctly, understanding the danger of cool things, and knowing how to build a deck with a plan. If your first goal as a deckbuilder is to build the craziest deck in the format, even if you succeed, you probably have not developed the skills to repeat that performance with any type of regularity.
However, if you have reached a point in your deckbuilding where you feel maybe you have plateaued a little bit and you are not sure what else to do to keep climbing the ladder, this might be a good thing to explore. Not only will it open up a lot more options in your card and deck selection going into a tournament, but it will teach you a lot about the player you are. When your world is not restricted to just 10% of its potential and the gloves are taken off, what kind of player do you become? What kind of new things might you discover?
Even if your journey comes back fruitless and you ultimately decide that nothing you found is better than the Caw Blade or the Jund of the era, you still can take away limitless information that you did not have access to before. You are essentially walking a day in someone else’s shoes and it can be an enlightening experience.
If there is one thing I can tell you from personal experience, going deep takes a lot of work. You can hop on any of your favorite Magic sites on an almost daily basis and read about the best deck or the top five decks of a format. There will be sideboard guides, playtest results, tips and tricks and more. On the other hand, where are you going to go to find out about card X that nobody plays or combo Y that nobody knows about?
You will often spend hours on ideas that ultimately never come together. You will spend days trying to figure out if your brew can even beat the best deck, let alone an entire gauntlet. You will spend weeks tweaking mana ratios and checking out curve considerations. It will probably be a lot of fun to be honest, but it is also a lot of work and a lot of time. Eventually, maintenance of this habit becomes taxing.
I know that for me, recent developments in my life have left me with less time to go on crazy rogue binges where I get to analyze a format from the ground up, card by card. Occasionally, I have the time and motivation to spend on going deep and it has still proven successful for me, but I understand that I can no longer be in that mode 100% of the time. Know that this could easily be your situation as well. Just because you want to brew or go rogue does not mean you need to do that every time. You can be rogue and be mainstream, you just need to pick your spots if time is an issue.
For those of you with enough time and motivation to be on this level all the time—I applaud you. I understand how dedicated to the craft you have to be to stay on top of things. Just know that it isn’t required of you. For each individual who thinks less of you for not being unique, some other individual will think more of you for doing what you thought you needed to do to win. Do it because you love it and because you can do it, not because you have to. And of course, if you are going to dive off that boat in the first place, you might as well go deep, at least once.