59 Mountains and a Craw Wurm

Magic is a competitive, zero sum game.  In every game there is one winner and one loser.  When playing in a game like this it is much easier to see any mistakes that you made when you lose than when you win.  After all, if you lose it is obvious something went wrong.  If you won it is easy to think that you must have done everything right, but this is not the case.

When you play every creature in your hand and then lose to a Day of Judgment it is not hard to figure out that holding one or two may have been the better play.  When you tap out on turn four for a Jace only to see it Spell Pierced, followed by the opponent playing their own Jace you learn it is generally better not to allow the opponent to resolve a Jace, even if the price of that is waiting a turn or two to cast your Jace.  If you play out every creature you have or tap out for your Jace at the earliest opportunity and the opponent isn’t holding the answer you are more likely to win that game and learn the wrong lesson.Winning does not always mean you were right, it often just means you were less wrong.  Being too results oriented can get you into a lot of trouble because it can teach you the wrong lessons and stop either your play or your deck from improving.  The best way to solve this is to think about your plays and your game after every match, not just the ones that you lost.

I was talking to an acquaintance after he top-foured FNM last week with RUG.  His list was fairly standard–nothing particularly spicy.  Preordains, Explores, Lotus Cobras, etc, and a few game-enders.  He ended up playing with only three Inferno Titans in the fatty slot, along with one Frost Titan and one Avenger of Zendikar.  When I heard he was playing less than four Infernos I was shocked.  If I were playing RUG tomorrow, I would play with six Inferno Titans if I could before I played any other finisher.  Whatever deck I am playing, the card I least want to see resolve from my RUG opponent is Inferno Titan.

When I told him this however, he was unconvinced.  In the third round of the swiss he played a match against another RUG player that had sideboarded in Wurmcoil Engines, drew his one Frost Titan, and was able to lock down the opposing Engines to stop them from becoming a problem and walked away with the win.  This convinced him that playing with a Frost Titan in place of the fourth Inferno Titan was correct.  After all, he had won a match he surely would have lost if the Frost Titan has been replaced by an Inferno Titan–how could it be correct to switch them?

The important thing to remember is that just because something worked, whether it was a deck, a sideboard strategy, a card choice, or anything else in Magic does not automatically mean it was correct.  Having a Frost Titan in place of an Inferno Titan won my acquaintance this game, but I would argue it was still incorrect because against the majority of decks an Inferno Titan would have been better.  Most decks at the moment are playing with many small threats, such as Plated Geopede and Steppe Lynx,  Squadron Hawks, or Pulse Trackers, rather than one large threat, such as a Sun Titan or Wurmcoil Engine.  When most opponents are more likely to have five 1/1s than one 5/5 the Inferno Titan is going to be a significantly better topdeck than a Frost Titan.  The Frost Titan is only superior when there is a threat large enough that it can not be killed by Inferno Titan’s Arc Lightning on the other side of the board.  Given the infrequency of this occurring and how often there are multiple smaller creatures that need dealing with, I think it makes sense to play as many Inferno Titans as you are able before diversifying into other threats.

This is one of the most difficult aspects of building new decks, or tweaking existing ones.  With so many possible matchups and game states it is not hard to imagine a scenario in which almost any card printed could pull you back from the brink of death.  This is a situation I refer to as 59 Mountains and a Craw Wurm.  By that I mean that anything can happen in a tournament, and it is important to remember that and not focus on one match too much.  If Elves! is 1% of the metagame it is probably not worth sideboarding any hate such as Linvala, Keeper of Silence just for them unless you also plan on bringing her in against other matchups.  At a large tournament it is still possible that you will play against Elves! the first three rounds and your tournament will be over.  That doesn’t mean you should pack your deck full of cards that are only good against Elves! for the next tournament, it just means you got unlucky.  It happens.  Sometimes you can play against someone whose deck consists of 59 Mountains and a Craw Wurm, and you’ll lose.  The lesson to learn from that match is not that you need more sideboard hate against this one deck that you’ll never play against again–it is that sometimes you get unlucky and play against the one deck in the room that can beat you, even if it can’t beat anyone else in the room.

Similarly, sometime you will have a card (such as Frost Titan) that is going to shine against one small segment of the metagame.  Even if you get lucky enough to play against that one small segment every single match of the tournament and the one card shines all day, it does not mean that playing that one card was the correct decision.  You could play with 59 Mountains and Craw Wurm yourself and go x-0 on your way to the the top eight, but no one would think that your deck was an example of shrewd metagaming or brilliant deck design–you just got lucky that the random element of Magic came up your way.

After every match I play I try to think about not only the cards that underperformed, but also the cards that performed particularly well.  If the same cards are continually performing well, it is worth considering adding additional copies.  If the same cards are constantly underperforming I give more thought to cutting them.  The most interesting cases, however, are the cards that are split between performing well and poorly.  If a certain card in my deck is quite good a small percent of the games I play with it and is less than stellar a majority of the time, it is probably good against the 59 Mountain and a Craw Wurm decks–good against a small percent of the metagame, particularly pretend decks, but it is not shining against the best decks in the room that will be played by the most skilled pilots.

After your matches, try to think of the cards that were good, and the ones that you were less excited to draw.  If a card is continually good it is worth considering adding more copies, but just because a card serves you well in one match does not automatically mean it is an allstar that belongs in every deck you play with.  Remember that Magic has a random element.  Sometime you can play against 59 Mountains and a Craw Wurm and lose, but if there was only one person in the tournament of two hundred people that does not mean your deck was bad or it was a mistake to play it.

Thanks for reading,

Brook Gardner-Durbin

@BGardnerDurbin on twitter

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Posted on March 29, 2011, in Articles and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 4 Comments.

  1. Great point. I don’t think I had ever approached my games from that perspective and I think I need to now that you’ve brought it up. How often does a card perform well versus performing well because I played against a weak deck. You’re better off tuning your deck before you lose by constantly assessing the situation and the metagame. Great advice.

  2. That day was the most glorious day ever.

    • Actually that day was the best ever ! and well, good article dude, concise to the point, with decent examples, and no hate replies yet!

  3. Hm. I definitely agree that relying on personal experiences can screw you up. I’ve seen so many people run cards that are stupid but saved them “that one time.”

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