5 Point Plan: A Time to Brew Some Magic
Last week’s article was very heavy on theory, so this week, I’m going to go for something a little more light-hearted… by sharing something special with you. My brash, young planeswalkers, we have reached my favourite time of the Magic year.
A mature and established block is about to rotate out of Standard, taking with it a well-explored core set. In its place, a wide eyed and hopeful set called Theros is emerging from the revolving door to the format.
Why is this time so special?
Well, with all the old certainties leaving along with Innistrad and M13, no-one quite knows for sure how the new Standard will pan out. What will the most important cards be? The most powerful interactions? The best new decks?
These questions will only be answered by exploration. Now is the perfect time to brew.
1. What’s brewing?
Brewing is the popular name given to the process of dreaming up new decks, or refined versions of known strategies.
In the early era of Magic, brewing was considered the norm; however, the rise of the internet (and the resulting explosion of information) has seen a steady movement toward players who favour established strategies in order to achieve success.
There’s a good reason for this: many established strategies are created by very gifted players, tuned by other superb Magic minds, then optimised through thousands of hours of online play-and-feedback cycles undertaken by the competitive community.
This trend casts brewers in the role of outliers, practitioners of a dying art: like alchemists, we try again and again to turn lead into gold, with varying results.
2. When is the right time to brew?
The truth is that one can brew at any time; however, we are more likely to enjoy success with certain types of brew at particular times in the life-cycle of a format.
These categories aren’t exhaustive, but they do give a reasonable indication of how brewing opportunities change over time.
When a format is wide open, it’s good to try and do things solely based on raw power; once there is some sort of shape to it, it becomes more realistic to find a brew that has the right mix of answers to successfully play the control role; in a mature format, it makes sense to look for ways to attack specific decks which are at the top of the metagame.
3. The Golden Rules of brewing
Brewing isn’t simply the throwing together of 60 loosely connected cards; instead, it is an earnest search to find powerful and unexpected angles from which to attack a format. If one doesn’t have some clear guidelines for the brewing process, it can become confusing or frustrating.
Here are the golden rules I use to keep myself on track:
Get the clearest picture you can of your format
Magic Decks don’t exist in a vacuum; they are played against other decks. It’s important to understand what the range of those other decks is likely to be, whether they’re limited by the hard and fast borders of a constructed format or by the tastes and preferences of the friends who gather around your kitchen table.
If a format is established, a brewer can consult either recent tournament results, or their memory of what everyone brought to last week’s kitchen table night, to gain an insight into the decks they need to take account of.
If it’s new, things are more difficult – but there are still ways to forecast the likely field.
Examining the legal cardpool and picking out the extremes – like the most aggressive small creature, most dominating large creature, the most efficient board sweeper, or the best card advantage engines – is a good start. Imagining which decks could be built to get the best out of those cards might then provide a very rough map of the landscape. This can be difficult, particularly if you’re a less experienced player, but it’s an important skill and you’ll get better with practice.
Have a good reason for your brew
If you’re committing yourself to brewing, I advise you to have a clear reason in mind as to why it’s a good idea.
When Brian Kibler decided to brew his now famous Green/Red Aggro deck ahead of this year’s World Championship, he did so because he had spotted an opportunity.
Kibler noticed that, in a format where everyone was playing very large numbers of non-basic lands, Burning Earth would pack a huge punch. He wanted to look for a strategy which could get the best out of the card – which meant a deck that was already putting heavy pressure on his opponents’ life totals, whilst running few enough non-basics that he wouldn’t suffer unduly from having a Burning Earth in play.
Try to have a specific opportunity in mind before you invest time and money in a brew – that way, you’ll have a much better chance of finding something great or at least learning something valuable about the format.
Make sure your brew is doing something worthwhile
If you brew a deck which can reliably reach a certain ‘goal’ game-state, but doing so isn’t actually powerful enough to matter, you are wasting your time.
Here’s a case in point: a little while ago, I decided to see if I could make Erayo, Soratami Ascendant work in Modern. Here was my plan…
Pulling this off makes it very tough for an opponent to ever cast spells again. That sounds powerful, right?
Well, it’s not powerful enough.
There are some things I can do to fix these problems (like swapping Canonist for Rule of Law), but they bring their own issues (it’s harder to close a game with a Rule of Law that can’t attack for two).
Ultimately, I had to accept that even though I could do this thing, it wasn’t a productive thing to be doing… and Erayo was shelved.
If it stops being fun, stop brewing
This one is really important.
Sometimes we can get so deep into the search for something new and different, but face such a series of near misses and abject failures, that the joy bleeds out of the brewing process.
If you hit this point, stop. Put down the cards; power down the laptop; do something else.
The next time you play, pick up an established deck and give it a whirl. Take a proper rest from the cauldron, let your morale recover and your subconscious slowly refill with ideas. Then, when you hit on a concept that makes you feel excited and optimistic again, allow yourself to climb back into the saddle.
Even the most prolific creative thinkers accept that 90% of their ideas won’t come to anything. The important thing is to nurture your mindset so that you don’t become disheartened by setbacks – otherwise you’ll never be in the right shape to take advantage of the golden idea when it arrives.
4. A real, live brew
It’s all very well talking about principles, but sometimes we need to walk the walk. Let’s brew something, right here, right now, based on an idea that was sparked by a Facebook thread I caught sight of earlier today.
The Format… and how it’s shaped
The format I’ll be brewing for is Standard, after the rotation.
We don’t know a lot about that format yet, but we do have a solid base for making predictions: the RTR block format, which will comprise 61% of the new Standard and which was expertly explored by the best players in the world at Pro Tour Dragon’s Maze.
That event was awash with Sphinx’s Revelation decks. Esper was the best-represented strategy by a huge margin, followed closely by Bant Control. The PT was ultimately won by Craig Wescoe’s aggressive Selesnya deck, so we can expect that to be an influential strategy too – especially since it gains.
What does Theros bring to the mix?
Well, some commentators have noted the presence of Firedrinker Satyr, remarking that it gives Red the ability to field a full 8 creatures with two power for one mana… alongside the existing Red aggressive base and the impressive Purphouros, there may be a spicy deck out there for those who like Mountains.
Sylvan Caryatid is also an influential card: it takes the place of Farseek as the go-to green accelerator and suggests that a mana-ramp deck might well emerge, seeking to deploy beefy threats and abuse powerful mana-sinks like Polukranos.
For our purposes – and knowing that in brand new formats, players tend to favour pro-active strategies – I’m going to plan for a Standard which includes a healthy quotient of small creature decks, a strata of ramp decks which lean on cards like Elvish Mystic and Sylvan Caryatid – and a layer of more controlling decks which use Sphinx’s Revelation to cement their advantage.
If my guesses about the format are close to the mark – and trust me, better players than yours truly have called it wrong in the past – I can see a cluster of cards which I’m interested in exploring.
The first is Anger of the Gods.
This sweeper does a lot of work:
- It murders all of Red’s early drops and everything Selesnya can bring short of Loxodon Smiter, importantly exiling Voice of Resurgence in the process.
- It also finishes off the otherwise very-hard-to-kill Sylvan Caryatid, plus any of his little elvish mana-buddies.
- It relieves the pressure a turn earlier than Supreme Verdict.
The next is Chandra, Pyromaster.
Chandra does two important things which I want to have access to:
- She pings for one. I think this is extremely relevant at the moment: I’m expecting aggression in the early days of the format and there are a range of creatures sporting one toughness which might feature in attack decks, plus some of the mana-producing elves from ramp strategies. As a bonus, she can finish off a four-toughness creature which would ordinarily survive Anger of the Gods.
- She provides a stream of card advantage. If I’m going to take a controlling role against Aggro, I’ll have to have a pretty good reason not to be playing a Sphinx’s Revelation deck. I think I do, because Chandra can give me the power to draw lots of extra cards without investing giant amounts of mana… plus, she brings additional upside with her extra abilities.
Third in line is Stormbreath Dragon.
I want the ability to close out games; I want resilience; I want to prey on Sphinx’s Revelation decks.
Stormbreath Dragon gives me a solid, evasive clock; a protection ability which blanks Azorious Charm, Detention Sphere, Warleader’s Helix and more; and a Monstrous ability which can threaten anyone daft enough to pull the trigger on a large, end-of-turn draw spell.
Last on my shortlist is a slightly left-field inclusion: Master of Cruelties.
I want to try out the Master in the new format for several reasons:
- He’s a great defensive creature, who also lives through Anger of the Gods.
- He doesn’t die to Doom Blade, Ultimate Price or Lightning Strike either – all spells I think will see a fair amount of play.
- He’s a potent attacking threat in a deck which has options for dealing the last point of damage; with one swing, he can wipe out a huge life cushion built up by a control deck.
- He’ll benefit more than most from Chandra’s ability to eliminate blockers.
In recognition of the fact that he’s more speculative than my other choices, however, I’ll only be packing a couple of copies.
At this stage… the brew
Is the brew doing something worthwhile?
It’s hard to answer this question with certainty before a game has been played.
We have plenty of early interaction to keep us alive; a solid midgame with Chandra and the Ember Hauler; and useful things to do with all the extra lands Chandra will draw us into, courtesy of Monstrosity activations and huge X-Spells. Our answers and threats are intentionally diverse, since we don’t know precisely what to expect from the metagame, but they’re tailored to give us a decent shot against the strategies we’ve predicted.
On the face of it, I believe that blowing up creatures, stripping the opponents hand, attacking their life total and drawing cards adds up to a pretty worthwhile strategy – but to be sure, I’d have to give it a whirl.
Has this been fun?
5. Be honest with yourself
The brewer’s most important quality is not creativity… it is realism.
Realism is the only thing which will prevent one from disappearing down the rabbit hole on habitual flights of fancy, only to end up with something unsatisfactory when all is said and done.
It can be hard to accept that a brew is not working but, as I intimated earlier, even the best creators in history experienced many more failures than successes.
Set a clear goal at the outset
Make sure you know what you are shooting for before you pull the trigger: decide on a clear goal and record it.
Your goal can be as modest or ambitious as you desire:
- Give my mates a shock, when we catch up next week for multi-player
- Beat the popular decks at my FNM
- Secure consistent 3-1 and 4-0 finishes in Online Daily Events
- Put me in the top 8 of a PTQ
- Take me to the top 8 of the Pro Tour I’m qualified for
All that matters is that you track how the brew is progressing against that goal. If it doesn’t hit what you aim for, go back to the drawing board or pick up a known deck that will bring the results you want.
Don’t make excuses, or wish that things were different
If your brew loses regularly in important matchups, there’s a good chance that either:
- It’s not strong enough to compete
- You’re not playing well enough to compete
You have the power to act on either of these issues – either by tweaking/abandoning the deck, or practicing your skills and seeking advice from experienced players – but if you bury your head in the sand and refuse to act, it’s no-one’s fault but your own.
Do what will make you feel good about playing
If results are really important to you, you need to play a deck which will let you achieve those results.
Don’t stubbornly play a brew that you know, in your heart of hearts, isn’t good enough. If you do, you’ll just end up angry with yourself; you’ll end up hating the brewing process; you may even end up hating Magic.
Brewing is supposed to be fun, so don’t willfully head down a path which will ruin that fun. Remember, it’s the rarity of finding a special brew that makes the concept so exciting.
Don’t force it; it’ll come.
To the Brewmobile!
We’re done for this week, so I’m signing off with a blatant shout-out to some of my local brewers (Paul, Stevie, you know who you are) and wishing you all the best of luck with your ventures into unexplored Theros-ian territory.
Thanks for reading, thanks for sharing.