When you plan to play in a Constructed tournament, you know work will have to be done. Choosing which deck you're going to play is the most important decision you're going to make. Having started Magic at a time the Internet wasn't what it is today, I have witnessed the evolution of deckbuilding and brewing.
In the late 90s, the internet was starting to boom and Magic was slowly but surely using this new medium to spread the newest decklists. There were only a handful of sites dedicated to Magic; some of us still remember the white on black letters the Magic Dojo welcomed us with. Back then, someone was committing a crime every time he or she would show up at a tournament with a deck he found online. A "netdecker" was by definition a lame copycat. A win with a deck that wasn't your own design was not a deserved one. The decks you could find online were mostly decks that won tournaments here or there, and only a small forum section was open to discussion for new inventions.
Times have changed. Netdecking and finding inspiration online not only became a norm, it became necessary.
Back then, players would show up in a tournament with either a deck they found online (remember, there were not a lot to choose from), or a brew that did well in their part of the world, usually meaning at their store or among the friends they played with.
In 1997 Manuel Bevand invited me to join "the Legion," the first international team based on the internet. Among us were future Hall of Famers: Alan Comer, Zvi Mowshowitz, Gary Wise but also Jakub Slemr and Alex Shwartzman. We exchanged decklists and thoughts from the different parts of the world on a super-secret mailing list. Back then Extended was the format we had to play, for PTQs (some of us weren't qualified for the PT) and GPs.
One of the first emails I ever received (like, ever!), was one from Manuel Bevand, sharing a list from Nicolas Labarre (future French Magic star) of a green land destruction list, running Tornado and Stampeding Wildebeests. This was the first time I ever got to successfully brew a deck. I worked on that deck for weeks against "netdecks" and local decks. In a field where monored and Patriot were the decks to beat, LLL (Legion Land Loss) was the deck to play.
Here is the list I took to GP Lyon:
I placed 9th at GP Madrid early in 1998, and won GP Lyon in February on the same year. The deck qualified me for two Pro Tours and Worlds '98. All that work that took pretty much all the free time I had in high school paid off.
And for a long time after that, I relied on others for the decks I would play. I don't know if it was because I didn't have enough time to put into testing (I was trying not to flunk at school and later at university), or just out of laziness; at the time, I could just pick any deck and win with it. My early successes at the Pro Tour, at Worlds in '98, and in Chicago in '99 were with decks entirely designed by Marc Hernandez. Much later in Yokohama '07, the red deck I played was a deck that Gadiel Szleifer gave me the day before the tournament.
That made me believe I just wasn't good at building decks. I would just be better at tuning and playing decks that already exist, like the Zoo deck that won me the back-to-back GP's in '07 in Dallas and Singapore. It was the back-up deck Olivier Ruel decided not to play in Dallas that I took and tuned for both tournaments.
When I thought about it, it made sense. How likely are you to build a deck that's better than all the decks thought of by thousands of players around the world, who pretty much team together to find the best version of each deck? How much time do you need to get better results than all the test time gathered by everybody else? It wasn't very likely.
It all changed in 2011 (relatively recently). I met with Adam Yurchick, Sam Black, and Alex West in Singapore to play the GP and playtest for upcoming Pro Tour Nagoya. We spent a few days all together, trying to figure out the Mirrodin Block format. While we had come to conclusions (what the best decks are, the main threats, the main answers), we had a hard time finding the solutions to the format. I had a 15 hour trip to Japan on my own and some time on my hands to come up with something. We needed to beat all kinds of Tempered Steel decks and midrange decks aiming at beating Tempered Steel decks. After hours of playing against myself on the plane and at Beijing Airport on Cockatrice, this is the deck I ended up with:
Monored splash blue for Consecrated Sphinx and splash black in the sideboard: that was the solution to the format. I talked to a few people before the tournament, including the people I tested with, but none of them were convinced, mostly because they hadn't seen what the deck was capable of. It was one of the first times I showed up at a PT, with a deck I built myself and that I was the only one to play. I ended up 11th, going 7-3 in constructed.
The other time I showed up at a PT with a deck I brewed myself and had a good result with was at PT Fate Reforged, with a deck I've been talking about for a while here on TCG, my Loam Pox deck:
As you probably know, the deck evolved since the Pro Tour, and even though I'm happy with the result I had with it (7-3), I would have changed a few things had I had more time and more people to work with me on it. The last version is about 15 cards different and better adapted to the current format.
While I don't think it would have changed my results too much (if I played the new version instead of the dated version), it's something that's always hard to overcome when you decide to play your own deck.
Have you had the time to find the optimal decklist? The concept of your deck might be good, and you can take a lot of people by surprise, but have you found the best options for your deck?
I took the example of Nagoya in Mirrodin Block. Even though I didn't have many real games with the deck, I knew it wasn't far from what I wanted to do. In Block Constructed, you only have so many options. In Modern, there are thousands of cards you can choose from. I had some experience with Dredge from previous tournaments and knew some/most of the options, including Vengeful Pharaoh that I played in my Dredgevine deck. But still, it took me another three or four weeks to come up with a version that I think is very close to optimal.
Talking about Dredgevine, it's the perfect example of how things can go wrong. It was for PT Return to Ravnica in Seattle, and I decided not to play any of the decks my playtest partners were going to run (which were pretty much everything the format was to offer). My deck (Zombie Station) was probably one of the worst decks I played at the PT, very far from optimal with huge flaws in its conception.
This time it took me a while to figure out how to fix it, and I played the following version almost a year later at GP Portland 2013
I played the Zombie Station deck because I thought it was fun and "different," but the lack of testing and the rush I had to find a deck I liked made me play an extremely bad version of a deck that would eventually be competitive a year later.
Another example of a brew I took to a tournament was at Pro Tour Dark Ascension in Hawaii: crowd favorite Frites:
That time Manuel Vernay and I worked together for some time before the tournament and when I showed the deck to my teammates, they were all on board to tune it. The deck performed great at the PT and if it wasn't for the bad draft portion, it would have been the deck of the tournament.
One last brew I played was at Journey into Nyx in Atlanta. Trey Van Cleave and I came up with a Blue/Black inspire deck that Team Revolution helped test which later became "GTA."
Trey and I spent countless hours tweaking the deck, trying out new cards, throwing the deck against any possible threat. To this day, I can say I would not have done anything different at that Pro Tour and would have played the same deck, card for card. The teammates who decided to play the deck didn't do as well as Trey and I (he went 7-3 and I went 8-2 with it), mostly because the deck was extremely hard to play and they didn't put as much time into the deck as we did.Brew or not brew?
When you find something, a good idea, a good deck concept, it might take a while to realize you have something that can be competitive. For example, when I showed Frites to my teammates in Hawaii, they were like "Wooooot?? This deck is awesome!!" From there, and with the team effort, you know you're going to get where you want to get. With enough time, you'll end up with a competitive deck that you know will do well overall.
However, when you have concepts that aren't that obvious, like GTA or Loam Pox, your teammates may have doubts and may not be able to help you improve what could be a format-breaking concept.
Give Frites to anybody and they will figure out in a second that having an Elesh Norn, Grand Cenobite out on turn three is good and that it will win on its own easily. Give GTA to the same person, he might not understand the interaction between the cards, lose a couple of games due to misplays and drop the deck forever. That might make you doubt your own deck since when you're showing the deck around, you're looking for approval or recognition of some kind to comfort you in your choice. You want everyone to win with it and not have to struggle every turn. Sometimes (like for GTA and Loam Pox), the deck is good and you manage to have a good version at the tournament and get some wins. Sometimes it's not and it's a major failure (Zombie Station).
At the last Pro Tour, I showed up in Washington to test with the team, knowing I would run Loam Pox. I had played that deck for long enough to know it was good, but I needed to improve the list. I tried to convince others to play it but was always answered the same thing: "I think your deck is good, but I don't have the time to learn how to play it." In a way, it was comforting: they said the deck looked good. But it might also have been because they were sick of playing a matchup they wouldn't face in the tournament at all (nothing wrong with that!), or it might also have been genuine, the deck I wanted to play was just not for everyone.
These two decks, Loam Pox and GTA have one thing in common: they are both extremely hard to play. GTA was a great deck in Theros Block but no one managed to post a result with it after the Pro Tour. When I covered GP Manchester (which was in the same format) I witnessed some pretty bad mistakes of players not understanding all the interactions.
When you brew a deck and change the list little by little, there is a reason behind every card you play and every change you make. When you hand the deck to someone, he might not see right away the reasons behind your thinking, and that's because you've been working on the deck prior and have been exposed to a lot more situations that you can manage it better.
Like I said at the beginning of the article, it's going to be very hard to figure out one deck, from scratch to competitive, without any help. You can spend as much time as you want on a deck, it will never be as good as if other people were thinking together with you. There's just so much work you can do on your own, and there's so many options in Magic that it's nearly impossible to get there on your own.
The best way to find the best version of a brew is to share the concept to a teammate/friend, at an early stage of the conception and think together. Not necessarily around a table, the two of you, but share the results and ideas after separate testing. It's important to have a different look at a deck or a format, sometimes there are things you just can't see or ideas you dismissed long ago that would be relevant later, that your teammate hasn't gone through yet.
Showing at a tournament with a deck you created, from scratch, without any help, is brave and risky. You do not want to show up with a bad deck, or a suboptimal list. That's pretty much the questions you have to answer before submitting your decklist. Are you sure your deck is good? Are you playing what you think is the optimal version? If so, go ahead. If not, there might be something you missed during testing.
And as usual, you have to think in terms of risk and reward.
-How risky is it to play your own deck?
It depends how much testing you put into it, how good you think the deck is, and how far from the optimal version you are.
-What can you expect?
Catching your opponent off-guard with an original strategy is both efficient and extremely satisfying.
Playing your own deck at a tournament is indeed extremely satisfying when it works out. Just make sure the pride doesn't cloud your judgement when it comes to judging if the deck is competitive or not.
I'll soon be on my way to PT Dragons of Tarkir; hopefully I'll be proud to share our inventions in standard in my next article!