Editor’s note: this was written last week, but was delayed due to the site problems.

The PTQ season has begun.

In putting together my deck options for this weekend’s first Northern California PTQ, I’ve found my mind drifting to evolutionary biology.

I know. It’s an easy leap for me, right?

Specifically, I’ve been thinking about the nature of “good enough” and how we have a leg up on nature in this regard – at least when it comes to adjusting our decks to give us more power over the metagame.

As it happens, we have a lot of “good enough” in our decks, but it’s within our power to clear that out and replace the cruft with power. Today I’ll talk about a little bit about how we might go about doing that, and the curious case when “best” is not “best for you.”

The evolution of Flores’ flock

Back in early April, Brian David-Marshall featured Edgar Flores in the mothership’s The Week that Was column. BDM focused on one of the fascinating features of Flores’ run through the SCG Open Series – the tiny, event-to-event changes Flores made in his Caw-Blade list.

If you checked in on the most recent results, you’ve seen that he’s continued this trend into the first post-New Phyexia open as well.

A series of stepwise changes

Here are all of Edgar’s top-eighting Standard Open Caw-Blade lists, in order from oldest to newest.

Caw-Blade, Washington, D.C. Standard Open, third place

[deck]4 Preordain
4 Squadron Hawk
4 Plains
5 Island
4 Glacial Fortress
1 Sword of Feast and Famine
1 Deprive
3 Gideon Jura
4 Seachrome Coast
1 Sylvok Lifestaff
4 Mana Leak
1 Cancel
4 Stoneforge Mystic
4 Tectonic Edge
4 Celestial Colonnade
4 Jace, the Mind Sculptor
1 Misty Rainforest
3 Spell Pierce
4 Day of Judgment
Sideboard
1 Baneslayer Angel
3 Divine Offering
1 Mortarpod
4 Oust
1 Deprive
1 Elspeth Tirel
3 Ratchet Bomb
1 Sword of Body and Mind[/deck]

Caw-Blade, Edison, fifth place

[deck]4 Preordain
4 Squadron Hawk
4 Plains
5 Island
1 Jace Beleren
4 Glacial Fortress
1 Sword of Feast and Famine
3 Gideon Jura
1 Deprive
4 Seachrome Coast
1 Sylvok Lifestaff
3 Mana Leak
1 Cancel
4 Jace, the Mind Sculptor
4 Stoneforge Mystic
4 Tectonic Edge
4 Celestial Colonnade
4 Day of Judgment
1 Scalding Tarn
3 Spell Pierce
Sideboard
1 Sun Titan
1 Baneslayer Angel
3 Divine Offering
1 Mortarpod
4 Oust
1 Sword of Body and Mind
1 Elspeth Tirel
3 Ratchet Bomb[/deck]

Caw-Blade, Atlanta, first place

[deck]4 Preordain
4 Squadron Hawk
4 Plains
5 Island
4 Glacial Fortress
2 Sword of Feast and Famine
3 Gideon Jura
4 Seachrome Coast
2 Tumble Magnet
3 Mana Leak
4 Celestial Colonnade
4 Jace, the Mind Sculptor
4 Stoneforge Mystic
4 Tectonic Edge
3 Day of Judgment
2 Into the Roil
1 Scalding Tarn
3 Spell Pierce
Sideboard
1 Sun Titan
3 Leyline of Sanctity
2 Flashfreeze
1 Jace Beleren
2 Divine Offering
3 Oust
1 Sylvok Lifestaff
2 Volition Reins[/deck]

Caw-Blade, Boston, fourth place

[deck]4 Preordain
4 Squadron Hawk
4 Plains
5 Island
3 Condemn
2 Jace Beleren
4 Glacial Fortress
1 Mortarpod
2 Sword of Feast and Famine
3 Oust
4 Seachrome Coast
4 Mana Leak
4 Celestial Colonnade
4 Jace, the Mind Sculptor
4 Stoneforge Mystic
4 Tectonic Edge
4 Spell Pierce
Sideboard
2 Sun Titan
3 Flashfreeze
1 Condemn
2 Divine Offering
2 Gideon Jura
1 Oust
1 Sylvok Lifestaff
3 Day of Judgment[/deck]

Caw-Blade, Charlotte, fourth place

[deck]4 Squadron Hawk
4 Preordain
5 Island
3 Plains
4 Condemn
2 Jace Beleren
4 Glacial Fortress
1 Mortarpod
2 Sword of Feast and Famine
2 Inkmoth Nexus
4 Seachrome Coast
4 Mana Leak
4 Stoneforge Mystic
4 Tectonic Edge
4 Jace, the Mind Sculptor
4 Celestial Colonnade
2 Into the Roil
3 Spell Pierce
Sideboard
2 Sun Titan
3 Flashfreeze
2 Divine Offering
3 Oust
2 Gideon Jura
1 Sylvok Lifestaff
2 Day of Judgment[/deck]

Caw-Blade, Orlando, first place

[deck]4 Preordain
4 Squadron Hawk
3 Plains
5 Island
1 Batterskull
1 Sword of War and Peace
2 Condemn
2 Jace Beleren
4 Glacial Fortress
1 Sword of Feast and Famine
2 Inkmoth Nexus
4 Seachrome Coast
4 Mana Leak
4 Celestial Colonnade
4 Jace, the Mind Sculptor
4 Stoneforge Mystic
4 Tectonic Edge
3 Into the Roil
4 Spell Pierce
Sideboard
4 Leyline of Sanctity
2 Sun Titan
3 Divine Offering
1 Mortarpod
3 Oust
2 Day of Judgment[/deck]

Looking at the rate of change

Consider that first event-to-event list update, between Washington, D.C. and Edison. Here’s what changed:

Just to make sure that reads clearly, it shows that Edgar added one [card]Jace Beleren[/card] and one [card]Scalding Tarn[/card] to his maindeck, as well as adding one [card]Sun Titan[/card] to his sideboard. He made room for these cards by removing one copy of [card]Mana Leak[/card] and one [card]Misty Rainforest[/card] from the main as well as one [card]Deprive[/card] from the side.

This is obviously not a gigantic change.

Returning to that whole “evolution” idea, when we look at changes like this in genes over evolutionary time, we sometimes want to rate how dramatic the change is. For example, some changes in your DNA have no significant impact. Flores made one of those changes here, swapping a Tarn in for that Misty Rainforest. In almost every way, they are the same card in this deck, as the role of either fetchland is to (1) be an Island and (2) give you a reshuffle effect to increase the power of Jace’s [card]Brainstorm[/card] ability.

But I did say “almost.”

This change does present the possibility, however narrow, that your opponent could misread your U/W Caw-Blade deck as a U/W/R Caw-Blade variant, and misplay accordingly. In contrast, there wasn’t really a U/W/G deck to watch out for during the metagame after Washington, D.C., so there was less value for Edgar in the Misty over the Tarn.

Did this ever come up in a real game? I have my doubts. However, it’s our first stop on the “good enough” evaluation train. In terms of the core purposes of this card slot, Tarn and Rainforest were equivalent. However, we could make a subtle adjustment that has no actual impact on our game play to get a slight edge on some unknown subset of opponents, so why not?

In other words, modest benefit, no cost. All upside – but more on this in just a bit.

As I was saying, in evolutionary bio we can score changes. Here, we have the land shift, which is very nearly no change at all. Without paying any attention at all to the value of specific cards, our other two types of change are “adding or removing a card entirely” and “moving a card between the main deck and sideboard.” In those terms, the D.C. to Edison change looks like this:

That’s adding one to the tally for each card that makes the move in question. Thus, with the Misty for Tarn swap not being counted, that’s two cards coming into the deck and two leaving, for a total of four Swaps. Since nothing moves between main and side here, there are no “Internal Moves.”

Tallied this way, here are the rest of the event-to-event transitions.

All of this event-to-event tailoring was done within a total pool of 103 cards. That is to say, you can build any one of the 75 cards that Flores used to top eight one of these five events out of a pile of 103 specific cards.

In other words, there’s a lot of subtle tailoring going on there from week to week. Flores wasn’t asking, “What’s the best deck,” but rather, “Is this the best card for me for this event?”

Interrogating our cards

It’s actually a lot easier to evaluate whether a deck is a general hit or miss for a given metagame or event than it is to decide which specific card choices to make. If it’s going to be all counterspells all the time, Valakut may well be a shockingly painful deck to make a run at the top eight with. That’s straightforward enough.

But how do you decide what combination of [card]Harrow[/card], [card]Growth Spasm[/card], and [card]Cultivate[/card] to run as your three-drop accelerator if you’ve decided that you can run Valakut this week?

In general, this is going to come down to taking really close look at the card itself…and then taking an equally close look at its user.

The functional core questions

I’m a strong advocate of always having a plan. This extends to all levels of the game, including making conscious decisions about which cards we play and why we play them.

The main question we want to ask each and every card we’re playing is:

“What’s your job?”

Followed by:

“Is that job still important?”

…and:

“Can anything do that job better?”

Consider the case of Leyline of Sanctity in Flores’ Caw-Blade decks. How does it interact with this line of questioning?

If you go back and look at the deck lists, you’ll see that Leyline and [card]Flashfreeze[/card] come into the deck at the same time, during the change-up for Atlanta, and then there’s a cute little dance between the two from then on, presumably driven by Edgar’s impression of the metagame and the specific strengths and weaknesses of each card in that context.

In asking “What’s your job?” we test our assumption that the card actually has a job to do. If you find yourself trying to figure out whether that’s true or not, that’s the first checkpoint where you might want to ditch that card in favor of using the slot some other way.

The second question is sort of the same as the first, except it asks us to look at the current metagame and make a decision about the card in that context. For example, you might have a card that is amazing against G/W Quest decks, so it certainly has a defined job…but the relevance of that job to a PTQ this weekend is incredibly suspect.

The final question forces us to look at each card in a bit more depth.

Picking the better card

The question of whether another card can do the job “better” is more complex, but here are some of the relevant issues to consider:

Effect is what the card actually does. Given a certain job, some cards are just going to be better at it. This obviously depends on the metagame. For example, if we were awash decks featuring [card]Precursor Golem[/card] and [card]Wurmcoil Engine[/card] as their finishers, [card]Doom Blade[/card] would have a better effect for the same cost than [card]Go for the Throat[/card]. Right now, though, there are some solid benefits to having Go for the Throat – for example, the fact that it can’t be redirected to a [card]Spellskite[/card]. So at the moment, perhaps Go for the Throat is better.

Cost is the cost of casting or using the card. That means mana cost, any additional costs, activation costs for things with activated abilities, and so forth. In the example above, we got to focus on the Effect issue because [card]Doom Blade[/card] and Go for the Throat share the same cost. However, [card]Gut Shot[/card] and [card]Lightning Bolt[/card] differ in both Cost and Effect.

Timing refers to whether the card is an instant or not. All other things being equal, we usually prefer instants (counting creatures with flash as “instants” for your consideration here).

Mana Impact describes what changes you have to make to your mana base to play the card. Lightning Bolt fits right into a mono-red deck because, among other reasons, it has no real mana impact. As long as you expect to hit at least one red producer, you can cast the Bolt. In contrast, if you try to splash Phyrexian Revoker into your mostly red deck, you’re going to have to contort your mana base something fierce if you actually expect to cast the thing. In other words, a bigger Mana Impact is usually a net negative.

Synergy is all about whether the card gains a lot of power in the presence of other cards in your deck. The classic example might be [card]Spellstutter Sprite[/card], which is middlin’ to not good on its own…but shines in a deck that runs [card]Bitterblossom[/card].

Crossover is a reminder to give the card credit for handling other roles in the deck. In the Leyline versus Flashfreeze comparison, both cards have a part to play in stifling Valakut and RDW. Flashfreeze, however, is also useful against Eldrazi Green builds and Elves, where Leyline really has no role to play. This means that if you wouldn’t want to throw Flashfreeze out and keep Leyline in just based on their shared purpose of “don’t die to Valakut” without considering Flashfreeze’s other jobs.

Demand refers to how often you actually need the card. It’s just a reprise of the “Is that job still important?” question from before. It’s an important one.

These are just guidelines, but they’re a good basis for picking between cards that seemingly all serve your needs, such that you have the right card for the job…or at least the “rightest” you can reasonably find.

Picking the better card for you

But it’s not just about the cards.

We like to talk about “best” cards much as we like to talk about “best” decks, as if these things lived in isolation from us as players.

It’s very much like a shoe seller telling you that Nike Zoom KD IIIs are the best basketball shoes, and literally all players should be wearing them.

You know on the face of it that this is nonsense. People have different needs in their shoes, even when they’re all trying to find shoes for the same basic task – in this case, playing basketball. The same naturally applies to cards.

This came to mind for me as I was evaluating manabases for decks this weekend. I’ve noticed that even when my colors allow me access to [card]Tectonic Edge[/card], I tend not to use them all that often. It’s likely a matter of play style, and it may even be formally “wrong” in the sense that using Tec Edges more would be better, but I simply tend to use them to actually cast more spells rather than attacking my opponent’s lands.

In evaluating the cards we play in our decks, we want to add in the following brief interrogation of ourselves and how we work with each card.

The basic question here is now about you, instead of the card as an abstract concept. Do you always forget the triggers on the card? Do you play in such a way that you don’t leave mana open to cast it? Do you forget it has the abilities it has?

If so, then it’s time to do one of two things.

1 – Learn to use the card.

2 – Ditch it.

Most writing on this game assumes that option one is always correct, but that’s so very far from true. If you can write yourself a little note, practice a bit, and remember to use the card in question, then that’s great. However, if you find that after more than a little bit of practice you just aren’t using a card optimally, then it is an overall hindrance to you.

Let’s go with the bombastic and very successful General Patton on this one:

“A good plan, violently executed now, is better than a perfect plan next week.”

If you find yourself burning more than a little time trying to remember to play a card, or if you simply aren’t using it, then it is dead weight. It’s dead weight even if any number of very good players tell you that it’s an excellent card – because as long as you aren’t playing it, it’s not.

This isn’t meant to be an excuse to not figure out how the game works, of course. If at any point you find yourself playing, say, Browbeat because of this idea, then you’re misapplying the philosophy. But it does mean that you’re under no obligation to keep a card in your deck because another player you respect thinks it should be there.

Tying this all back together

As we enter into the current PTQ season, the take-home from today’s piece is threefold:

First, we want to check in on our card choices every so often to see if they need to be changed, even if they aren’t obviously awesome or bad.

Second, doing this requires that we know why we’re playing each card, and how its traits make it better or worse than the other options we have for that same role.

Third, we need to acknowledge that actual people play the cards, and that it’s perfectly fair that what works for me might not work for you.

Good luck to everyone who’s tilting at the PTQ windmill this weekend. I’ll be there with all of you on Saturday, playing games and having a good time.

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