Getting Good At Modern – Shaking Up Your Deck, by Katie Roberts

Liliana of the Veil

Getting Good At Modern

There’s a Modern Grand Prix coming up in a few months, and I want to, as they say, ‘git gud’. I heard from reliable sources that the best way to ‘git gud’ at something is to practice, experiment, and reflect on what we learn. If you’re interested in Modern, Grands Prix or getting good at stuff, I hope this article series will help you explore some of the things to consider when going deeper on a format. If not, you can always laugh at my terrible deck choices or disproportionate love of playing Green or something.

Two years ago I traded a Jace, The Mind Sculptor to my boyfriend for a very budget but playable version of Black-White Tokens, and I’ve piloted it ever since. I’ve taken the deck to smallish tournaments and Grand Prix Side Events, borrowing copies of Inquisition of Kozilek and Thoughtseize to swap in for my usual Duress and Despise. I’m pretty casual – days out playing MTG are great fun – but I like winning as much as anyone.

I love Black-White Tokens. I’m pretty comfortable with gathering townsfolk and raising alarms. It is an easy-to-play, fair deck, but still leaves opportunities for interesting decisions and the possibility of making big exciting board states and crashing in with an army of* 4/4 vigilant flyers. As a first Modern deck, BW Tokens was great. Although it never stood out in the meta, Tokens could win matches. The deck gives us decisions, but isn’t complex in comparison to many other Modern decks. 10/10, would linger souls again.

*probably three.

But after two years, it’s time to shake it up. Going deeper into a format and trying hard for a tournament will probably involve building a new deck, or at least testing some to understand the competition.

Getting into a format

Now, my friends, is the time to rise to the challenge. *Record scratches – lights go down – Eye of the Tiger fires up – I roll up my sleeves and riffle shuffle perfectly without breaking eye contact.*

Where do we start when we want to explore a format? Over the next few weeks, we will try to answer that question. I hope that my journey to get better at a Constructed format will help you do the same.

For many of us, myself included, Magic is an excellent part of our lives but not the main focus. We have jobs, study, family life and so on, but dream of pausing time and playing Magic for a week. Because the game teaches us to seek out value at every opportunity, I recently decided that some newfound free time of mine would be spent trying to get good at the game.

Right now I now have more time than before, and a desire to fill it with levelling up at Magic. I’m not sure how many people continuously improve at the game and how many of us go through little bursts of effort followed by periods of mostly casual play, but I’d imagine some of us are the latter. No matter how we learn, it pays to put in extra effort occasionally.

Until very recently, I had never tried different variants of my deck. I have never tried to brew a Modern deck, or proxied up a tier 1 deck with the idea of trading into the expensive cards that I need. I haven’t properly tested my existing deck by critically evaluating my plays against a series of matchups, and I don’t think much about the expected meta of a tournament before playing. I don’t own fetch lands; my trade folders are mostly full of janky rares that I’ve been meaning to build casual decks with for two and a half years.

Now that I’ve explained at length why I’m a terrible and disorganised Magic player, let’s get on with my article about being good at Magic.

When we are busy, experimenting with Magic can take a back seat as we prioritise playing games over building decks that we won’t have time to play. When existing Magic players decide to commit more to the game, what should we think about? How do we make the most of this opportunity? If you are getting into a format for the first time, where do you start?

The best way to get good at Magic is to play a lot, which is fortunate, because Magic is great. But what exactly does this mean? With which decks, against who, what else should we think about? How do we choose a deck, and make the most of our collections? Is it better to brew or netdeck? How much does winning matter to us versus having fun, and how do we build decks to achieve these goals? Whether you are trying to go deeper in a format or starting out for the first time, let’s try to answer these questions over the next few weeks.

So, on to the main focus of this first article…

Epic experiments

Occasionally I have to remind myself that decks don’t exist in units of “deck”, they exist in units of “card”. Especially when decks cost a lot of money or are played infrequently, we can become reluctant to change them. When we don’t get to spend much time playing Magic, it can seem more worthwhile to keep our decks as an immovable unit.

The closest my Modern deck got to change was the time I stored a promo in my deckbox for safekeeping and nearly accidentally shuffled in a Progenitus. Over the last two years, people have suggested awesome variants of my deck that might make it more fun. I’ve kept a mental list, and there’s no time like the present to try them out!

After a conversation at Grand Prix Prague I decided to try Craig Wescoe’s build of Black White Tokens. With Smuggler’s Copter banned in Standard, they flew out of my Mardu Vehicles deck and crash-landed in Modern.

The main motivation for this was that my build of Tokens seemed to stand as much chance beating Tron as a 1/1 Spirit Token beating Garruk in an arm wrestle, and my local meta seemed to be full of mines, towers and power plants. Although I could hope to prevent it with discard, if my opponent stuck an Ugin, the Spirit Dragon they could ensure that I never have creatures. The addition of Smuggler’s Copter allows you to knock loyalty off planeswalkers, giving you a better chance in this matchup.

I won’t go into a detailed analysis of the deck, it is explained excellently in Craig Wescoe’s article; the aim of this series is to consider how we can get good at constructed MTG generally, not to suggest what you should play to win tournaments.* I think this deck is great fun though and I love the way it plays, after testing it for a few weeks I’m glad I gave it a shot.

*Unless I win tournaments.

I learned a lot from adjusting my deck to fit a new build. This gives us a lot to think about when trying a different build of a deck that we know. These things will hopefully apply regardless of the constructed format we are playing.

The first thing I learned was…

Don’t assume the deck will play in the same way

The variant of Black-White Tokens that I played for two years runs seven enchantments in the form of Intangible Virtue and Honor of the Pure. The only Planeswalkers are two copies of Sorin, Solemn Visitor, and non-point removal comes in the form of two copies of Zealous Persecution. As I proxied up my 10th Planeswalker and put my enchantments back in my folder*, I guessed that this alternative build would probably play a little differently to what I am used to.

*Lies. I didn’t put them back in my folder. I don’t know where they are now. Send help.

My usual version of BW Tokens relies on curving out reliably and making the most efficient plays whilst doing so. It likes to be on the aggressive side of midrange, and although it runs spot removal, it isn’t so great on defence.

The new build is far more controlling. Liliana of the Veil, maindeck boardwipes and a higher mana curve mean that it seems to prefer a much more defensive stance than previously.

This surprised me, although it shouldn’t have. The decks didn’t actually overlap that much, meaning that instead of playing a “variant” I am playing a completely different deck with a different game plan and optimal play style.

My advice here is to step back – take a look at the new build on its own terms instead of in the context of our previous build. Knowledge of our usual deck can totally help, especially if the decks end up being similar to each other in play pattern. Be prepared to adapt how we play what might feel like a familiar deck, and we’ll probably do better.

Think about why you are testing it

The other thing that I thought when proxying my tenth Planeswalker was that I was, uh, proxying up my tenth Planeswalker. Unless the RNG Gods are watching over me in next week’s Modern Master’s 2017 draft, it’s pretty unlikely that I’ll own a playset of Liliana of the Veil anytime soon. (They’re always watching over the person to the left.)

I had decided to test this variant because I saw it as a “variant”, i.e. something that I would own most of already. It seemed to me that it would be more cost effective to try a “variant” than considering building a completely new deck. I don’t think it works when the deck that you’re testing contains such expensive cards.

What I learned: before proxying up a variant of your deck to test it, consider how much you would need to trade into or buy if you decide to build it. If it doesn’t overlap that much with our existing collection, we may consider that any other deck in the format may be equally worthwhile to test; we don’t gain much by it feeling similar to what we already play.

Please only proxy cards for the purpose of temporarily testing your untested ideas, and only at home.

Making lazy proxies is a great way to learn cards

Okay, hold onto your Lightning Greaves, weird advice is incoming.

I have issues remembering card names and abilities. They just don’t stick in my mind with much adhesion unless I have played them a lot or have some strong emotion towards. In addition, I made basic proxies and didn’t include all of the rules text on them (largely because I wanted to go and get lunch).

At the time, I could see no way in which making substandard proxies would benefit me. I was just being lazy. Unexpectedly, playing proxies without all of the rules text worked a bit like turning off your satnav to take a driving route that you probably know but never have a reason to remember. It made me commit their abilities to mind without just reading what they did and then forgetting the details again. Having to think for a second about the exact text on Zideon, Ally of Gendikar* was an unexpected benefit.

*If you’re going to make bad proxies, you might as well write their names in a way that tickles your sense of humour.

I’m not saying we should make sub-standard proxies, because that would be wrong of me, right? For one thing, we might play against friends who don’t know all of our cards, and they should not be disadvantaged because we prioritised seeking food over making good proxies. I’m just saying that if you happen to make bad proxies, you might unexpectedly learn more efficiently.

Entering the Arena

After being hesitant to test another deck for ages, I’m so glad I did. I have learned more in the last few weeks than in the last few months, without playing that many more games of Modern. Shake it up a bit, learn a lot. I decided not to take the deck further, but had a load of fun playing it. It was certainly better than my previous build against Tron, and deepened my understanding of matchups in Modern.

The biggest thing that I have learned this week? Getting started is the biggest obstacle, but get out there and try something new if we want to explore a format in more depth! Next time, we’ll talk about choosing a deck.

Thanks for reading,

Katie Roberts

Getting Good At Modern - Shaking Up Your Deck, by Katie Roberts
Where do we start when we want to explore a format? Over the next few weeks, we will try to answer that question. I hope that my journey to get better at a Constructed format will help you do the same.

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