Work Smart, Not Hard
Work Smart, Not Hard
"Learning one’s deck isn’t just about knowing the cards in it. It’s about knowing the cards not in it. It’s about knowing your matchups, knowing all your possible draws, knowing as much as you possibly can about the different situations you could get into. It’s about truly understanding the way your deck fundamentally functions. But above all, it is about knowing why it is a deck in the first place, why it even works, and what it does."
It's truly quite a journey to travel from the day you first pick up your 75 to the day you reach the abovementioned utopia. Many venture to FNMs far & wide, often without a map, and whilst many find their way swiftly there are those who do not.
Recently I've found it exceedingly difficult to manage time between Magic and other commitments; finding myself often only being able to attend FNM every two weeks or so. I realized I needed a more efficient way to learn new decks because simply pitching up to FNM was not going to be feasible. A deck I was eager to play was Modern Dredge, and there was a Comp REL event coming up at the end of the week. I had about a week to prepare - inbetween a 07h00 - 17h00 job - and I had never played the deck before. I did something I'd never done before and made a to-do list of things I thought I should know about the deck by the end of the week. I attempted to complete as much as I could on the list and come game day, I actually felt quite comfortable. Subsequently I took second place at the event (Link of top 20 for those who are interested: http://www.mtgportal.co.za/event?eventid=108 ) .
After reflecting, I felt that the steps I took really saved me a tremendous amount of time to "feel comfortable" with a deck and I believe that anyone can implement them when picking up a new 75.
Step 1: Basic Mechanics
The first thing I did was try to wrap my head around the basics of the deck and what made it a coherent 75 vs an arbitrary stack of cards. I'll use examples of my thought process when learning dredge, but the principles can really be applied to any deck!
How do I win?
No point using the deck if you don’t know how to win with it right? The first thing I figured was the "standard line" of winning. I'm going to get an army of creatures. How will I do this? I'll use enablers which will allow me to place dredge cards into the graveyard and abuse any opportunity I have to use the dredge mechanic. In addition to creatures, I can use Conflagrate to add in an extra bunch of damage. This would be great in an ideal world but what if my opponent does something that shuts down plan A? What is plan B, C and D?
If my opponent shuts down my graveyard I will either have to hard cast my creatures and hope for the best or find something to remove their graveyard hate. If my opponent gives themself hexproof and has Ensnaring Bridge maybe, if they’re on low enough health, I can Creeping Chill to 0. If my opponent is playing a combo deck which I have minimal means of interacting with e.g. Ad Nauseum, should I at one point, consider using Shriekhorn to mill their win cons or scry’s from the top?
How do I lose?
Do I lose to myself? What would I consider a good hand and what would I consider a bad hand? For a good hand I'd at least need some means of getting a red + green source of mana, ideally two mana available as the majority of my best cards require this as well as means of enabling the dredge strategy (Will go into more detail one day if I ever do a dredge primer) .
What are some of my deck’s inherent weaknesses?
In what scenarios would my opponent be able to either 1) stop me from executing my own aggressive plan and conduct their own at leisurely pace or 2) benefit from me executing my own aggressive plan (death shadow!). This gives me an idea of how I should approach various matchups and what sort of role I should assume; aggressive, hyper-aggressive or controlling.
How do I find the information that I need?
I thought to myself, why spend time puzzling over all of this myself when many more experienced and better players (who do this for a living!) have already put in a lot of the work for me. Resources that I found incredibly useful were as follows
YouTube streams: I managed to find some really great streams where Jim Davis who is quite familiar with the deck plays entire MTGO leagues and gives fantastic annotations with each of his plays. Often at times I would see it a good learning experience to compare what I would’ve done in said scenario vs what was actually done and the rationale behind it.
Reddit: Any community you'd ever want to find, even MTG, you'll find on Reddit. Most deck archetypes even have entire subreddits devoted to them with a large number of involved members who make useful contributions, give advice and point out new tech. I probably learnt the most from the members who regularly played in GP's and shared their preparation & ideas online.
Other valuable resources to keep in mind: Discord groups, SCG articles and last but not least friends of yours who already know the deck!
Step 2: Advanced Mechanics
What are some interesting interactions to keep in mind?
At this point I felt fairly comfortable with the majority of the basics. I set out the 75 and thought to myself of potential "atypical" uses for my own cards which could potentially make a difference in games. Examples were as follows: I can use Nature's Claim on my own artifact to gain 4 life in a tough spot, I can Lightning Axe my own creature in response to Path to Exile targeting it, I can cast Darkblast on my upkeep, dredge it back and cast it again to remove a pesky two toughness creature, I can crack fetch lands in response to Surgical Extraction on a Bloodghast trigger to retrigger landfall. Essentially, I just let my imagination run wild for this step.
How to minimize errors:
I thought about some common errors that I'd make and the immediate ones that came to mind were; missed dredges, missed Bloodghast landfall triggers and missed end of turn Prized Amalgam triggers. After identifying these I managed to figure out my own system for remembering the triggers. One such example would be the use of a bead or dice on top of my library to remind me that I have a dredger in the grave the next time I'm about to draw a card.
Is there anything I need to be proficient in? Yes - setting out my graveyard! This is crucial and can be game changing should I miscount triggers or not realize I can flash back a lethal Conflagrate. Furthermore, excessive faffing around with a poorly organized graveyard can lead to loss of time which can ultimately impact on the match result. Another example highlighting the concept of "deck proficiency" is someone combo-ing off in storm who would have to keep accurate track of floating mana as well as storm count in addition to managing a graveyard (half of which contain flashback cards after a resolved Past in Flames). All of this would have to be done at a pace where everything is well represented to the opponent yet fast enough that the match can proceed with the next games.
Rulings on every card:
Often there’s some very interesting details that we overlook with cards and specific rulings. I ran the cards in my deck through the gatherer page (link below) and just briefly checked if there was anything extra that I should keep in mind.
Step 3) Side boarding & Tailoring to Meta
Sideboard guides are readily available online and I used advantage of one provided in the Dredge subreddit by a player who had been extensively preparing for grand prix on the same weekend. I appraised what was in his sideboard and weighed up the reasoning for inclusion / exclusion for certain cards and made my own decision on how I'd approach various matchups. One such decision was to include Ghost Quarter in the mainboard as I expected to go up against many Tron and Grixis Death Shadow opponents.
In Summary the steps to learning my new deck were:
- How do I win
- How do I lose, inherent weakness and playing around them
- Useful resources
- Unexpected Interactions
- Identifying and preventing potential misplays
- Deck proficiency
- Individual card rulings
3) Formulation of a sideboard plan and tailoring to expected meta.
I hope that the above steps will be useful to you and serve you well as they have for me!
"Brute force can sometimes kick down a locked door, but knowledge is a skeleton key"
- Jace, Architect of Thought
By Kiran Mani