How I Got Here: An Ixalan deckbuilding case study; but also a story about Magic
A few weeks ago I walked you all through some of my favourite Magic articles of all-time and explained why they’re great and how they level you up in different ways. One of the articles in particular has had a profound impact on my approach to the game since publishing that list. The Elephant Method, Zvi Mowshowitz’ brain child has taken over my life. I’ve built multiple Modern and Standard decks using his method and found it closely resembles some of the processes I previously used to work on my own decks.
With that in mind, today I’m going to walk you through the way I approach deckbuilding by using brand new Ixalan Standard as a case study. The purpose for explaining all of this to you is twofold: it allows me to show you a brand new way to look at card selection and overall strategy in addition to helping you figure out where to start in Ixalan before Nationals. I warn you, this is going to be as much a coming-of-age story as it is a strategy article. I want to tell you how I build decks, but I also want to tell you how I got there, what it meant to me as a player and how you can level-up both your ability to play and your ability to fit into this travelling carnival of strong opinions and over-air-conditioned convention centres.
Deckbuilding is what I’m good at. Which is both something I love about my game and something that keeps me up at night. The former because a lot of players I respect and look up to value my skills highly and assist me with my gameplay. The latter because no matter how good my deck is I consistently play like an irritated cat at the table–twitching and moaning.
There was a key point in my Magic career when my deckbuilding reached another level, and that’s what the point of this article is. I build decks with lists. From the top of my “what do I want in my deck” preferences to the bottom I use lists to figure out what cards I’ll register. I like to think about it like an old writing theory called the inverted pyramid. Like this:
In the way that I’ve roughly shown above, you work your way through each one of the questions you have about every format in order to find the cards you’d like to play. I generally start with a macro-level question like, “do I want to be linear or reactive? Aggro or control?” Then I figure out which decks best suit whatever strategy I end up choosing, what colours I might want to play in that deck etc. I understand that so far my explanation is a little vague which is the reason I’m going to take you through a full case study shortly. But first, I want to tell you why this method added so much to my deckbuilding and my ability to succeed in Magic.
Proving that YOU’RE right
The hierarchy of opinion that exists within the competitive Magic community was the single hardest hill for me to climb to get from mediocre player to someone who expects to compete to win at every event. The players everyone thinks are good are always right, and you’re always wrong–this is truly how it feels. No matter how hard you work on your pet-deck, you feel like they always understand matchups a little better and find better tech than you. It’s an seemingly endless flurry of hyperbolic opinions that will always result in the collective believing the take of the player with more results and tighter play.
Well, I’m here to tell you that you are in fact, right. If you’ve played the matchups and worked through the pros and cons of a card, or deck or sideboard plan then odds are you are correct about your conclusions. This game is simply a matter of proper practice and a lot of it. You need to be diligent in ridding your findings of bias and rigorously try to denounce every theory you come up with. But, when you do that, well happy days my friend because you get to be right this time.
This realization changed my approach to Magic. This, in combination with using trial and error to work on the deckbuilding method I’m about to show you levelled me up. It proved I was right, and I had poorly printed decklists, threat-lists, answer-lists, sideboards and even a couple grocery lists in a notepad document to prove it. I could lay out my findings in front of the players I looked up to and explain to them that I had a method to my madness.
In the same vein working in this way allows you to avoid hive mind-style thinking, or as Patrick Chapin wrote–Cascading Information. When you line up your card selection in lists you’re uninhibited by what the “stock deck” is. There’s no online results, no tournament reports, just you, a blank document and as many lists as you need to find the perfect 75 cards.
Magic is a hard place to make a name for yourself, it’s hostile and intimidating. But please, if you read anything I’ve ever written read this: just work and you’ll get what you deserve.
The Ixalan Case Study
Hazoret Red, Keith Capstick
Temur Energy, Daniel Fournier
This is what we know for sure. Mono-Red dominated this past Pro Tour and Temur Energy dominated the following RPTQ and GP season. So, when beginning to develop lists of cards/strategies that we’re interested in playing we need to work with these two major entities in mind. Here are our choices:
- U/W Approach
- Hazoret Red
- Temur Energy (with or without Black cards)
- B/Gx Constrictor
- God-Pharoah’s Gift Decks
- R/Gx Electrostatic Pummeler
- Hidden Stockpile Decks
- Vehicles Decks
- Scarab God Reanimator
- Scarab God Control
Based on the results from last season, this past weekend’s StarCityGames Open and early MTGO results these are the most competitive archetypes you could expect to compete against at a Standard event right now. The decks in bold are what I consider to be the top competitors as of right now based on the SCG results. These are the decks you must have a plan against to have success at a large Standard event.
This first step and first list seems very simple but is of the utmost importance. Deck selection is obviously very important and without taking a look at a list like this you could find yourself with a well-tuned deck that simply doesn’t have good matchups against the winner’s metagame.
So, how do you pick a deck? Well, first I’d recommend picking from what is considered the “Top Tier” of decks (the ones in bold). In general I think players looking to get to that next level brew way too much. The best advice I can give you is that if you want to win: play the best decks. This is something Paul Dean has reinforced to me recently and he’s found success focusing on. It is absolutely the fastest way to improve your results at a fundamental level. With that in mind how do we then choose from that Top Tier? My answer: make another list.
- U/W Approach: Favoured against B/G, Temur Game 1
- Hazoret Red: Favoured against Gift and U/W, Hazoret is so hard to deal with
- Temur Energy (with or without Black cards): High card quality, favoured against Red and B/G
- B/Gx Constrictor: Favoured against Red, Hostage Taker has a lot of potential
- God-Pharoah’s Gift Decks: Capable of free wins, the right list has potential to “break” format
Of course this is very rough, but it functions fine as a visual representation of the decision you’re trying to make. This allows you to address what you think are the good and bad matchups for the decks you’re considering and figure out which deck yields the highest potential for success. Another thing to consider is individual cards. Maybe you think Hostage Taker is so well positioned that it makes you want to play Sultai Constrictor over a deck with more positive matchups. These are all things I’d consider.
For the purpose of this case study the selection I’ve made is Temur Energy. Despite not having the overall power-level of Hazoret Red the deck has the ability to beat anything and very high card quality. It’s also favoured against flavour-of-the-week Sultai Constrictor which is something I value a lot. I’ve also decided in favour of the Black splash to give us a leg-up in the mirror and grindy matchups because I expect Red to be on a decline if Constrictor is popular like it was this past weekend. Just a rough list like this allows you to work through something as complicated as deck selection so that you can move on to where you’ll really maximize your potential for wins–choosing your threats and answers.
So now that we know we’re playing Temur Black let’s take a look at a stock list:
Temur Black, Jon Toone, 7th Place, SCG Open Dallas
Once I’ve found a stock list like this my next step is to start my tuning by looking at the format’s most prevalent threats and answers in order to better inform my own threats and eventually the answers I’ll choose. So, here are lists of Standard’s most prominent threats and answers:
The cross-referencing of lists like the two above are where I spend the majority of my time building decks. Like I showed earlier I actually find the process of deck selection to be pretty simple, but perfecting the threat/answer ratio and make-up of a deck is where you can gain an edge on the margins in Magic. Of course what you’re trying to do with this information is to find the answers that deal with the most threats and the threats that evade the most answers. All while maintaining a high “in-a-vacuum” power level. Let’s start with Abrade as an example:
- Functions as MD answers to God-Pharoah’s Gift
- Only major threats it misses are 4+ Mana (Glorybringer and Hazoret)
- Kills everything in the the Sultai Constrictor Deck
Now let’s compare Abrade to Magma Spray which is the other flex-slot removal spell Temur decks play:
- Exiles Earthshker Khenra
- Does not kill x/3s which dominate the above threat list. (Constrictor, Whirler, Hostage Taker, Kari Zev)
- Costs one less mana then alternatives
If Magma Spray doesn’t answer so many threats in the format why do people play it? The answer is that they’re either irrationally afraid of the Red matchup or, the more likely case, they’re simply making decisions based on stock lists. Using a method like this one with lists, or Zvi’s theory you avoid the impact of cascading logic on your win percentage. Here’s another example with Whirler Virtuoso:
Whirler Virtuoso is your best cheap threat against Red and U/W in addition to being a solid energy sink and midrange threat across the board. It also provides energy even when it’s bad, contributing to the overall velocity of your deck. It is absolutely a slam dunk, windmill, backflip four-of in Temur Energy decks of every kind. There are so many decks in the MTGO results pages with less than four copies and with one simple look at the metagame it is easy to tell that is wrong. What inflates that fact even more is that there is only one deck playing sweepers in the whole metagame so you’re not going to get punished for going wide.
Last example, Chandra, Torch of Defiance:
Abrade: Doesn’t interact with her.
Harnessed Lightning: Nope.
Hostage Taker: Lul.
Fatal Push: Still Bad.
Farm//Market: Not even close.
So you’re telling me that if I play in a way that allows her to live the only way I’ll lose my four-ability planeswalker is to an expensive sideboard card like Vraska’s Contempt or counterpells in a format where Censor is the most popular counter? Maybe I should put copies of this card into my deck.
Temur Black, Keith Capstick
Sideboarding and Situational Cards
In the third phase of this inverted pyramid strategy I use lists to come up with the exact configuration I want my 60 card deck to look like after sideboard against all of the Tier 1 decks in the format. By doing this you ensure you never have too many, or not enough, cards to board in or out. Of course what better to narrow down our options then some more lists. My method for this is to make a list of each sideboard card I am interested in for a specific matchup and then delegate their roles based on the number of slots I have available for that matchup. Here’s an example for Hazoret Red:
Against Red I’m currently boarding-out two Chandra, two Scarab God and two Abrade for the Defeats, the Cartouches and the Hour of Glorys (although this I’m not so sure about). Using the above list in combination with what I wanted to board-out I narrowed down the list to what I feel are the most versatile and effective sideboarding plan for Red. I then repeated this process for the rest of the most competitive decks, again with an onus on versatility. This is how you can avoid going to your sideboard in Round 1 and realizing you have 5 cards to board-out and 3 cards to board-in.
After I have an idea of what cards I’d like for each matchup, I like to take a look at the format’s “problem permanents.” These are cards my deck might have trouble removing in a pinch and therefore I might want to address in my sideboard. This is why I landed on playing a disenchant effect in my 15 in order to have the ability to answer cards like Anointed Procession.
The last list I make is a little unique. In recent sets the threats and answers in Standard have really forced players to reconsider the way their deck looks on the play versus on the draw. You saw this effect a lot with Tireless Tracker in sideboards. On the play you want to demand answers and have as many threats as possible, while on the draw you want to be more reactive and have catch-up potential. Everytime I build sideboards I try to find room (I haven’t yet in this case) for a card that emphasizes this play/draw effect. I’d really like the ninth removal spell on the draw or the fourth Glorybringer on the play and that’s something I’ll look to adjust and include if slots open up.
Before I leave you to mull this all over and wonder why I put myself through the punishment of writing this many words about such specific things, I want to tell you what spurred this article. I’ve recently decided to spend a little more time and money travelling to GPs and making a run at playing a higher level of Magic this year. With this in mind, I’ve obviously been thinking about how I’ve gotten better in the past and how I can continue to get better. I’ve put a lot of thought into the distance between what makes someone a “pro” versus just a good player, or a grinder. And that (somehow) is what I think this article is ultimately about.
I’m in a unique spot in that I spend a lot of time around very good players while at the same time not being one myself. And to me, winning at magic (like most things) is about work. That, and putting separation between yourself and those around you, it’s cutthroat. This is what’s so inherently flawed about things like sideboard guides. Grinders yearn for them, but they’re last week’s news. Discarded ideas, solved problems, nothing that will help you win more and achieve your goals. Pros likely have good intentions and you can obviously draw your own conclusions from their work, but they don’t want you to win. They want to win. So that’s why I wanted to share my process. This game requires a deep and uncertain dive without any site of payoff. It requires you to find solace in the smallest of victories and it amplifies the inner-regret of even the most simple and fleeting mistake. Hopefully, with what I’ve discussed today we can achieve some goals together. Or, at least, you can and I’ll build the deck.