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Budget Brewing: The Element of Surprise


"Getting information from the Internet is a bit like taking a drink from a fire hydrant," - Mitchell Kapor.

 

Floodgate [MI]

To begin I would like to say that the internet has done wonderful things for Magic. I would even venture to say that without the internet Magic would be almost nothing like it is today. The internet allows people to watch 3,000+ player tournaments taking place halfway around the world. It also allows players to live stream their games so that people everywhere can learn from them. The advent of online card dealers and websites which gather pricing data has largely standardized card price and eliminated regional bias in those prices. It has also allowed people like myself to share their thoughts and ideas about the game as it constantly evolves and changes. The Magic world, with all of this readily available information, and the ease with which it can be accessed, is very different than the semi-stagnant state of affairs it was before the wide spread use of the web.

Thirst for Knowledge [MRD]

There's something else the internet has created. Players now have access to endless information about every constructed format. The exact list of any deck to perform well in tournaments everywhere are only a few mouse clicks away. The global accessibility has led to a rise in "Net Decking" and a majority of players are turning to the results of professional tournaments to determine what cards they use when building their decks. This isn't a new trend, and it has a long standing track record of success. Furthermore, it is important to mention that there is absolutely nothing wrong with running one of these tested and successful decks. However, there are some inherent disadvantages that come from playing an established deck and these disadvantages don't receive half the attention that they deserve.

The most important of these disadvantages is that any deck list found on the internet is there for everyone to see. The more successful the deck, the more likely that other players will be familiar with the contents of the deck and how it works. As the trend of Net Decking becomes increasingly popular, competitive Magic moves further towards being a game with perfect information: i.e.. both players knowing exactly what the other person is playing. Knowledge of an opponent's deck list drastically changes the decisions players make during the course of a match. Players will play in ways that avoid many of the tricks that could be hidden in an opponent's hand. As decks work their way into the center stage, more and more players will see the list, know how it works, and know how to play against it. It's safe to assume that even at the casual levels of constructed Magic, many players spend time researching the formats they play in. Furthermore, it should be assumed that those same players who familiarize themselves with the game in this way also spend considerable time practicing playing against the well known decks, optimizing their lines of play against them, and honing their ability to sideboard against them.

The trade off that players face when choosing whether or not to Net Deck is consistency of performance or the element of surprise. When the opponent knows what you're playing, it becomes considerably more difficult to lure them into making mistakes. As I mentioned earlier, Net Decking has had a long track record of success, but it's not all bad for the players who choose to brew. There is also an old tradition of home brewed decks catching Net Deck pilots completely unawares. The Jeskai Heroic deck that swept Star City Oakland in October was able to perform so well because no one saw it coming. The other players in Oakland had come prepared to face the decks they had already seen, not for something new. A detailed look at the other decks in the top eight of the Oakland tournament reveals a heavy showing of Abzan Midrange and G/B Constellation, a fact that the commentators were quick to point out. What fewer people have been discussing is that these top tier decks had all made some changes that week. As an example, the Abzan players seemed to favor cutting Rakshasa Deathdealer, and Fleecemane Lion for more copies of Siege Rhino, and Wingmate Roc. Changes like these were made in order to increase their win percentages in the mirror match and against other midrange decks.

Risky Move [ONS]

The important thing for brewers to take away from SCG Oakland is that many players have a false sense of security as a result of their long hours spent studying the results of past tournaments. It's easy to fall into the trap of thinking that just because we know what has worked in the past, we also know what will work in the future. Recently, I was discussing the future of Modern with several of the players at my local store. One person mentioned that he thought Jeskai Tempo was in a good position to do well. Another player responded immediately that Jeskai Tempo was not a legitimate threat. He went further to explain that since Jeskai Tempo deck hadn't had a top eight performance since before Khans was released, it clearly couldn't be a very strong list. What struck me about this comment was not so much whether he was right or wrong, but the vulnerabilities that comments like this expose. Based entirely on the lack of appearance in top eight standings in the past several months, this player was willing to just write the deck list off and probably stop practicing against that particular match up.

Speaking of decks that fly below the radar, the best way to explain why this type of thinking can be so dangerous is going to require us to look at good old Legacy Dredge, or as I like to call it, Legacy's Bogeyman.  Dredge doesn't make a triumphant showing in the top eight of even ten percent of the sizeable legacy tournaments from last year, but that doesn't seem to stop a significant portion of Legacy players from packing Dredge hate in their side board. At Grand Prix New Jersey, we see Grafdigger's Cage, Tormod's Crypt, and Relic of Progenitus in the top eight side boards. It's easy to say that these cards show up in sideboards to answer other major threats like Tarmogoyf, Scavenging Ooze, or Treasure Cruise, but there are several stronger picks against those cards: i.e. Force of Will, or Swords to Plowshares. These sideboard cards are there specifically in case Dredge rears it's ugly head. It seems clear that top level Legacy players respect the threat that Dredge poses even though it has not been performing nearly as well as other decks. This respect has been garnered by Dredge's uncanny ability to quietly run over a tournament when players aren't ready for it. Dredge players prey on the exact sort of opinion that my friend was expressing, and can quickly make players regret leaving their Tormod's Crypt at home.

We know that players expect us to play the same decks they're used to seeing. We also know that we can influence players' actions by giving them tid-bits of information and misleading their assumptions about what we're playing just by playing some of the cards they expect to see. I, for one, think more players should be taking advantage of this game plan. Misleading your opponent can be as easy as playing lands in the correct order. Mana Confluence sends more information than a Mountain, but much less then Mystic Monastery. It's a good idea to shape your opponent's idea of what deck you're playing with your land drops. This, of course, takes a back seat to being able to play spells when they are needed, but it can still be useful. It is also common for players to play around the spells they expect to see in a color like Hero's Downfall in Black in Standard or Remand in Blue in Modern. Just showing an opponent what colors you have access to can make significant changes to how they choose to play, and sometimes the best Lightning Bolt is the one an opponent only thinks is there.

Liar's Pendulum [MRD]

Another tool brewers have access to is the ability to bring in any of the countless cards that are available in a format.  Currently the Standard card pool is at the smallest of its life cycle and there are 1,067 unique cards available. Modern can access 8,688 cards, and a staggering 14,271 different cards are accessible for Legacy. Even for Standard, that is a much deeper pool than any tournament results would suggest. If the top deck lists from a Standard tournament were combined, sideboard, lands and all, that list would only represent just over half of the available cards. In reality, the percentage of the available card pool represented in the top eight is much smaller. The last SCG top eight had a total of ninety four unique cards out of the six hundred total cards.  It seems safe to say that there is an obvious elite tier of cards currently in Standard, and this isn't something that is particularly novel. The trend holds true in every constructed format, except perhaps Block constructed. There can be little question that the cards which continuously appear in placing decks are some of the most powerful cards available. I only remind players that everyone is aware of them and have well studied in their tricks. There are still thousands of other cards that have slipped by quietly unnoticed by the majority. Ok, so Sip of Hemlock will probably never be the runaway card Standard players are looking for, and there are many other cards of equal insignificance. There are also cards with plenty of potential uses. At first, the large amount of cards to sift through can be quite daunting, especially in eternal formats. The deeper a player digs to find cards, the less likely their opponents are to have any idea what their cards do. On the bright side, it's not like anyone needs to reinvent the wheel. In the vastness of cyberspace there is a lot of old Magic content alongside the current stuff. Frequently, cards that performed well in the Standards of the past can also achieve success in Modern or even Legacy. Many players will recall that Delver of Secrets was a powerhouse in Inistrad Standard before it started popping up in Modern and Legacy. 

I thought quite a bit about what decks could be made to demonstrate these concepts. I even got as far as testing a few, but I realized that it would spoil the surprise. So instead, I did some digging around and I found this gem of an idea by one MikeytheNinja. On top of being an interesting deck concept, this reminded me of another valuable Magic lesson. Just because there is a particular way that I think a card should be used, doesn't mean it's the only viable way to use it, or even the best one. 

I have always had a soft spot for Semblance Anvil. Its effect, its feel, and everything else about it calls out to my inner Johnny combo player. Unlike Mikey's deck, I have always thought that Semblance Anvil's application in Modern should be land destruction, but I've never been able to build anything that's quite fast enough to keep pace. After one look at Mikey's combo-control list, I knew I wanted to work on it. After a few tweaks, and keeping our current Modern budget of $149 in mind, here's what I came up with.

These seventy five cards play with all the heavy handedness of a rampaging toddler. You just sit back and say NO to any of your opponent's threats. Dig through your deck for the combo pieces and then kill your opponent in one explosive turn.

Here's how it works. You imprint any instant you don't think is immediately necessary under your Semblance Anvil, which reduces the mana cost of all seventeen of your counter spells, as well as the other instants, by 2. This cost reduction brings Ghostly Flicker down to a one blue spell. You Ghostly Flicker an Archaeomancer and any Island or Sulfur Falls. When Archaeomancer returns to the battlefield, you target the Ghostly Flicker that's just finished resolving, returning it to your hand and your land has come back into play untapped and ready to cast again. Repeat this process until you can either deal lethal damage with a Grape Shot or you have enough tokens from Young Pyromancer that you can attack for lethal damage (don't forget you can go the token route at the end of your opponent's turn). 

The deck runs some of the typical Modern conterspells Mana Leak, and Condescend. These cheaper spells are there to help guarantee the Semblance Anvil can make it into play. Once the Anvil is out, you can drop the hammer on your opponent's plans with Last Word, or Rewind. Discombobulate helps find the missing pieces. Mindbreak Trap is essential to the survival of the Anvil since it can effectively counter Abrupt Decay which would otherwise give the deck some real trouble. 

Don't be afraid to use Ghostly Flicker to dodge removal spells since Archaeomanceer can get it back when you need it again. The only low point of this is when you need to use it to protect the anvil since it will need to exile another instant card from your hand when it returns to play.

Out of the sideboard we have: Cyclonic Rift to deal with the Birthing Pod decks and other aggressive swarms. Muddle the Mixture helps find Young Pyromancer or Grapeshot, and helps against other control shells. Staff of the Mind Magus can help slow the onslaught of fast decks and can actually gain you Infinite life if your combo is only missing its Grapeshot/Young Pyromancer. Venarian Glimmer seems incredible. It's instant speed discard that also gives information about the opponent's hand. I bring it in against control decks and Affinity to check hands for counter spells and deal with some early threats from the hand. Whispers of the Muse is a catch-all card to bring in and replace cards that don't seem to be working in a matchup.

The biggest strength of this deck is that I don't think anyone would expect anything like it. It plays very similarly to Kiki-Jiki Combo in that the deck doesn't have to stay ahead of the opponent; it just has to slow them down enough to establish the combo and win.

I hope that as more player continue to flock to Magic we will see an increase in competitive brewers at the upper echelons of competitive play as opposed to the continued increase of following the coat tails of the decks which have already won. As I have said repeatedly there is nothing wrong with playing an established successful deck, but if everyone chooses to go that route then the result will surely be stagnancy. The next time you're sleeving up your seventy five for a tournament, remember there's a reason why we have phrases like ''Secret Weapon."

- Cooper


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