Tuesday, October 11, 2011

History Lesson #1: AA-Gun from Minnesota Champs 2005

Let’s take a walk down memory lane with the first in a blog/column where I’ll be talking about successful decks I’ve designed in the past, the lessons I learned from those designs, and how you can incorporate my strategies into your own tinkering and brewing sessions. 

Here is the decklist:


4 Molder Slug
4 Eternal Witness
4 Viridian Shaman
4 Sakura-Tribe Elder
4 Viridian Zealot

4 Magma Jet
4 Oxidize
4 Sensei’s Divining Top
4 Tel-Jilad Justice
2 Deconstruct
1 Echoing Ruin
1 Creeping Mold

1Tendo Ice Bridge
4 Shivan Oasis
9 Forest
6 Mountain

3 Plow Under
3 Arc-Slogger
1 Rude Awakening
1 Kodama of the North Tree
3 Kodama’s Reach
4 Pyroclasm
As you can probably tell, there was really only one deck playable at States that year, and the deck was Ravager Affinity, still fully equipped with Disciples.  Champions of Kamigawa was the new set and 8th Edition was the base.  As it turned out, some “kooky” players* from Wisconsin brought in a Kiki-Jiki deck, I was playing my Orchard Alarm combo, and RG Freshmaker was also popular because it supposedly had a great match-up against Affinity.

Freshmaker did not have a great match-up.  In fact, it didn’t even have a good match-up, and the reason for that was because the players piloting it assumed that 16 maindeck artifact destruction spells were enough.  They weren’t.  The guy who sleeved up my 75 from above played Affinity in six out of the eight rounds and did not lose a game, beating every player he faced who had the Artifact Menace in their deckboxes that year. (For an entertaining experiment, proxy the two decks up and run them against each other.  Affinity literally cannot win)  

The team I was working with at the time thought I was crazy, because they assumed that my deck was just “bad” Freshmaker.  It took only three matches for one of them to make the switch.  He was the only one who Top 8’d that year (sadly, GerryT was the player who knocked me out of the Top 8 in the last round, by passing the turn, changing his mind, and playing a Blinkmoth Nexus he was planning to hold in his hand as a bluff.  He didn’t even realize until after the game that I would have won had he not played it—I still had 15 outs in my deck, so I should have won anyway, but that was very disappointing, to say the least)

How the Deck Came Together

Obviously, Freshmaker was the starting point for the deck, as RG seemed strong in Block, even though it was usually correct to just play Affinity.  The key development came when I realized that tons of different decks at the time were devoting 8-12 sideboard slots in order to beat Affinity in Games 2 and 3.  As I mentioned in an earlier article on this site, this made no sense to me when I came to understand that Affinity was going to be an enormous part of the metagame.  Why not just design the deck to beat Affinity in Game 1 and 2, and build the sideboard to defeat the other decks that you might have to face once in the whole tournament? 

My logic was that if we were expecting to win, we’d be in the X-0 bracket, where presumably the Affinity decks would be hanging out.  As long as we got paired against Affinity in Round 1, we should have been able to run the table the rest of the way. 

So I knew the goal, I wanted a deck that had a higher than 90% win rate against the Artifact deck.  We tested RG against it a hundred times, and the match-up was good, but highly dependent on the competence of the Affinity pilot.  A top notch player kept the win rate down to about 60%, and could play in a manner that made it even closer to a coin flip.

(A quick aside: Thankfully, most of the writers that are still prolific on the Internet have moved away from claiming match-up percentages.  The game today is very, very different from what it was even as late as 2005, which is the year of this particular Champs event.  I haven’t seen it written about very often—or even at all, actually, but I’m assuming I missed something somewhere—but decks simply do not have win rates that vary all that much.  You can see this in the statistics that mathematically-inclined writers show off occasionally from different events.  The most statistically dominant deck will be higher than 55% in only a tiny sample of situations.  By contrast, a deck like “Owling Mine” was literally 80% or higher against any other control deck in that metagame.   I’m going to examine this, and what it means, next week in this column, but for now, I just wanted to call attention to the phenomenon.)

We were playing 4 Shatter, 4 Oxidize, 4 Viridian Zealot, and 4 Molder Slug at the time.  Most of the team, and most of the Internet, for that matter, assumed that even playing that much match-up specific removal was overkill.  It was later understood that a lot of the testing with RG was done with the weaker team members piloting Affinity (I was hardly alone coming up with the idea of a deck that beat Affinity being the correct metagame call, but on most teams, that meant the stronger pilots were wielding RG, and they were beating the Affinity decks in the hands of inferior mages). 

When it came to the tournament, Freshmaker was losing just as often as it did in my own testing, only no one else seemed to have realized it beforehand. 

It wasn’t genius innovation to add more artifact destruction, but it was innovative, nonetheless.  I added Shamans, then Tel-Jilad Justice, Echoing Ruins, Deconstruct, and Creeping Mold, and with Sensei’s Divining Top, we had our metagame slayer.  50% of the deck could destroy an artifact, and with only 20 lands plus the Top, you were drawing  gas constantly.  In retrospect, I actually wish we would have had two more Deconstructs, as Deconstruct into Eternal Witness into Deconstruct plus Viridian Shaman was probably the spiciest opening we had.

Playtesting the match-up became boring very quickly, and we gave up the idea of having anyone play Affinity at all, just because we assumed someone else would have this deck.  (As it happened, one of the team had to play Affinity because we couldn’t get the cards for another copy of my deck at the site, and he beat 4 RG Decks that day)

So What Exactly is the “Lesson” Here, Anyway?

This was the first fully-metagamed deck that I ever built that actually worked the way I wanted it to.  The main thing I took away from it was that if you are trying to beat a specific archetype, you need to go all in on that strategy.  Don’t split the difference.  Don’t assume your “tech” is going to be enough if it is just one or two extra cards.**

When Friggorid first exploded, followed soon by the Dredge decks we all knew and loved, I was the guy desperately Facebook messaging people and telling them to put 12 cards in their board against it.  For something like three consecutive PTQ seasons I told people: 5 cards aren’t enough.  Some people believed me and got to play in Pro Tours, others went 0-2, drop.

My “Little Red” deck operated on many of the same principles, and to this day, if I wander in to a tournament and see obscene numbers of one specific build, I’m not afraid to bite the bullet and go all-in on the counter strategy. 

If this lesson doesn’t seem relevant to you because metagames don’t work the same way anymore, I can’t necessarily disagree.  But, hmm, I wonder what would have happened at all those tournaments with 7 CawBlade variants in the Top 8 if someone would have just let the fear go, and design something like my AA-Gun?

Until Next Time

I’ll leave you with the decklist for Intruder Alarm combo that I played at the same tournament I discussed above.  It never really caught on, although I believe that it eventually won a PTQ in Extended of all things when it was played by Ped Bun.  In any case, here you go:

Juicy Fruit
4 Intruder Alarm
4 Lifespark Spellbomb
1 Natural Affinity
4 Sylvan Scrying
2 Fabricate
1 All Sun's Dawn
1 Revive
3 Gift's Ungiven
4 Aether Vial
2 Goblin Cannon

4 Birds of Paradise
4 Eternal Witness
1 Kumano, Master Yamabushi
2 Dosan, the Falling Leaf

2 Chrome Mox
4 Forbidden Orchard
4 City of Brass
1 Blinkmoth Nexus
1 Minamo, School at Water's Edge
5 Island
6 Forest

*This is not meant to be offensive.  It’s actually a pun on the name of the deck they brought to the tournament, “Kooky-Jiki”. 

**Astute readers, or people who actually remember my old articles, will recall that I had actually taken advantage of the “lesson” before I learned it, during Extended with Tinker.  A lot of the combo decks after the Pro Tour started shifting towards reactive games meant to “beat the hate”.  I went the opposite direction with my version of Twiddle Desire and just made it faster.  Sure, I could get hated out, but it was impossible to sideboard against my deck when I just went ahead and won on Turn 1.

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