Breaking Through – The Decks We Weave

So, 2013 is over. I know that the date changing is no different than any other day to the next—but as a person of ritual looking to grow and learn, that date switching from 12/31/2013 to 1/1/2014 could not have been more important.

2013 taught me so much that it might end up being “that pivotal year” I look back on 30 years from now. That is quite the statement, but last year finally got me to a point where I can be the person I have always wanted to be. Along the way, things were tough and I definitely felt burdened, but as they say, it’s always darkest before the dawn.

I cannot begin to say that I was happy with everything that happened during the year, but if it was all a path leading me to where I am now, then I can’t complain. One area where I certainly struggled was in my play. I did not see the results I expect of myself, and that was frustrating at times, upsetting at others. I can explain my struggles using a list of pretty valid excuses, but there is no need to go there. Instead, it is important to focus on the things I learned or can learn from. Why I struggled is only important when I can avoid or alleviate the source of the struggle.

For example, I know that one of the reasons I struggled was a lack of focus and of practice. I have already made some physical changes in my life to secure more time to play the game I love. I am taking steps to get back to a level where I am comfortable with both my play and deckbuilding. Over my holiday break, I sat down to think specifically about the decks I had worked on and/or played throughout the year. It turns out, the stories they tell are very instructive.

Built to Last

Generally, over the course of my career, I have had a habit of showing up to tournaments with something new. I don’t necessarily mean a rogue deck, although that was also often the case, but I mean that I would show up with a deck I had not played in a tournament before. It was both a source of pride, to always be looking to attack the metagame in a different way, but more importantly, it was a defensive measure.

When I was playing mostly local tournaments, I would show up with very inventive decks, but they almost always had some glaring weakness. I managed to get around this because that weakness could only be exploited once people knew it and built their decks accordingly. Once the deck lists were collected, I was safe to do whatever my brew was designed to do. If I were to show up the next week with that same deck, let alone four or five tournaments in a row, it is likely that some number of people would be prepared for my shenanigans and things would not work out as well, if at all.

Part of the reason I did this was simply that I could. I was a kid with a lot of time on my hands and a desire to show off my talents. Literally the only thing standing in the way of my working on new decks was my desire to do so. It turns out, Magic is a pretty addicting game and I rarely felt lazy when it came to deck design.

Maybe I was lazy with testing my deck or lazy in figuring out the sideboard guide for myself, but in terms of actually generating ideas worth playing in a tournament, that almost never happened. It did lead to many tournaments in which my first game of the tournament was also my first game with the deck, but sometimes you just have to gamble, right?

However, with more commitments in my life these days, that type of time just didn’t exist in the same way. Churning out new decks week after week was just not realistic. So, this year I tried to be a little more “normal,” and twice I worked on a deck for a prolonged period of time, taking it to multiple tournaments.

The first of these decks was the Eggs deck. I first played the deck in San Diego before [ccProd]Second Sunrise[/ccProd] was banned. After the card was banned, many people wrote the deck off, but I was sure it could still be good. I worked on it all the way up through Grand Prix Portland where I ended up playing a version of the deck equipped with [ccProd]Krark Clan Ironworks[/ccProd]. The deck played well enough, but I did not end up making Day 2 and was disappointed. Eventually, I played the deck again in Detroit, tuning it even further, switching out the win condition, and picking up 3 more [ccProd]Mox Opal[/ccProd]s after the legend rule change. The deck was easily at its best point yet, but a poor showing left me a little frustrated.

As this was the first time I really dedicated this much tournament space to a single deck, I don’t know exactly what I was expecting, but I guess I did plan on my results improving as my dedication increased. Instead, I actually had my best finish with the deck in the first tournament I played it and never got to that point again.

I had always heard people explain that it was better to play a deck you knew really well then to play the best deck. While I rarely play “the best deck,” I am generally not playing a deck that I have worked on forever or anything like that. I am not known for midrange the way that Kibler is and I don’t just play Affinity in Modern all the time like Alex Majlaton. There is never a deck that I know so well that I fall back to it in times of uncertainty. Instead, I brew. Yes, I know the deck pretty well after building it, but not in the same way or context that these specialists do. They have been faced with hundreds if not thousands of situations, so they understand what to do instinctively. As the builder of a deck, I might have theorized about those situations, but I have not actually lived them.

This was the first time I actually felt like I had a deck to fall back to; like I had a specialty. San Diego took place in March and Detroit in September. Every Modern event within those 6 months, whether that was a Daily or a Grand Prix, I played Eggs in. And yet, despite all of that, my performance was down, so what happened?

Well, the first answer is that my play skill dropped in that time. I was playing worse which I needed to address, but my deckbuilding was not the source of that problem. However, my new role as a champion of Eggs was directly clashing with what I am actually good at.

You see, I typically look to fill holes in metagames or to attack certain decks in a new way. The metagame usually dictates what I play. Not only is this what I am most comfortable with, but it means that I usually change decks from tournament to tournament. Metagames are rarely stable over time, so the deck that I feel performs best in that metagame is also not stable over time.

Here I was spending a ton of time tweaking and tuning a list, but the list was never able to attack the metagame. The list was both proactive and required a large percentage of the deck to be locked in. If I tweaked too many things without replacing them with cards that performed similar roles, the combo would potentially not work, or would be less consistent. All of my time and tweaking on the deck was instead spent on making the combo as efficient as it could be. While this was good for the deck, it never took into account what other people were doing.

Imagine instead that during that time I had been tweaking Jund. Jund has such a generic game plan that I could realistically tweak it and try out interesting metagame choices and the deck would remain functional at the end of the day. I could make sure the deck had answers to Eggs in San Diego when that deck was crushing the GP and then I could make sure it was good against Merfolk when that became big 4 months later. With Eggs, all I could do was make sure the combo was the best it could be. Once I hit my ceiling there, iteration was almost exclusively in the sideboard.

And even there, I was very limited. Again, this is a combo deck. While there are 15 cards I can mess around with to attack the metagame, I am only ever able to bring three or four of those in at a time lest I dilute my deck too much and end up with a nonfunctional combo deck. I couldn’t take an awful matchup and make it a good matchup with that kind of leverage.

Despite putting a lot of time into the deck, the environment I had originally designed it for was long past and the deck probably should have just been put to sleep a tournament sooner than it was. I enjoyed that I was able to constantly work on the deck due to its proactive nature, but I was never working on the deck in such a way that improved its position in the metagame.

Running it Back

Later in the year, I stumbled upon a little black/green graveyard strategy that I really enjoyed. As many of you know, this turned into what I dubbed B/G Dredge. Here, I was able to improve on the formula that I had tinkered with in Eggs. Now, I had another project that I could work on and tweak for multiple weeks or months, except this time, the deck actually had some flexibility.

While I did not get to take the deck to nearly as many tournaments due to some crazy travel and/or health issues, I felt like my deckbuilding process was much better this time around. The fact that I was not locked into things the way I was with Eggs was very liberating. There were still plenty of hoops to jump through, but they were challenges as opposed to stops.

In Dredge, for example, having a high density of creatures was at a premium. This meant that whenever I went to a new card or effect, I needed to see if there was a creature that could perform that role for me. If there wasn’t, the card I ended up choosing had to either be extremely strong or extremely synergistic with the deck. Having a soft limit on spells was something, but it was not preventing me from having a deck that could adapt to the metagame. My time spent on the deck was often exploring new, exciting changes, and the deck was able to evolve as a result.

Not only was I working with a tool that could be applied in significantly more situations than the former, but I, as a builder, was more willing to experiment. Maybe it was because I was testing the deck so much outside of tournament play, but I was willing to try almost anything. If someone had a suggestion on a forum or article, I would try it out. Maybe that idea sucked, but maybe it was great. This is actually how [ccProd]Lotleth Troll[/ccProd] made it back into the deck. I had tested it early and found it lacking. However, after multiple iterations, the card had been cut as it was no longer pulling its weight. Weeks later after the deck changed, I tried the Troll again after feedback, only to find out that it was quite strong.

When I had worked on Eggs, I never made any extreme changes. Earlier I stated that the deck could not change much due to its combo nature, but to be honest, I never even attempted extreme changes. I was too worried about messing with the engine and wasting a lot of time.

Deckbuilding can hardly be a chore. I enjoy building decks, and I definitely don’t feel burdened by the act. Working on Eggs felt more like a chore, though, even though I did not realize this until recently. Restriction did not breed creativity in this case, because the restriction was all mental.

Wrap Up

I am still looking to build on the lessons I learned from Dredge. The specifics of the deck are not likely to mean all that much going forward, but the way I built and approached the deck certainly will. With Eggs, I was too willing to lean on the deck. It did all of the work and I overlooked the progress. That type of deck building might seem appealing, but it ultimately bit me in the butt as I deserved. Dredge might have taken more work and more of my time, but I was able to improve it in meaningful ways week after week.

In the future, I am sure I will be doing this again. The appeal of playing a deck for multiple tournaments is pretty high when you have other commitments. It is strange to think that it took me 10 years of playing Magic before I ever encountered this hurdle, but it did and it has been quite interesting. I only hope the lessons continue to surprise me. Oh, the decks that we weave. Thanks for reading!

Conley Woods

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