Grand Prix Lille will be here soon, and it’s time to find 75 cards that you are willing to take into battle. But how does one identify which deck to play, and more importantly, which cards to play in this very deck? There are a couple of things I’d like to talk about when it comes to testing, and how to choose a deck. I am well aware of the fact that they won’t cover everything, but they should give you a good impression of what I believe to be important for tournament deck choice, and should be giving you with an idea or two in order to help improve your own testing process. And with GP Lille on the horizon it can’t be of any harm, I suppose.
What Deck to Play?
Miracles. Oh wait, sorry, this isn’t one of my Miracle articles. Excuse me. When it comes to this very question, we, the players of Magic’s best format, are a little bit biased. We all tend to have our pet decks, one way or another. And the good old saying “Play what you are most familiar with” still holds true for the most part. If Storm would be the best deck without any doubt and you’ve never counted to 10, I mean resolved Tendrils of Agony, you probably shouldn’t pick up the deck, despite the fact that it’s superior to yours. But this isn’t what this articles is about, at least not solely. It is however something that’s important to keep in mind when it comes to choosing your deck. If you have a choice that offers approximately the same competitive chances on both ends, then for the love of god, take the one that you are more familiar with.
The first decision you have to make is whether you want to play the “best deck” or not. What do I mean by “the best deck?” Well, it’s a term I use for the top dogs of the format. And while Legacy is incredibly wide open, it is somewhat limiting when it comes to the apex of the pyramid. This isn’t a bad thing, though, because that’s the way competitive environments shape up after a certain amount of time. As of now we have two decks that occupy that slot. It’s OmniTell and Miracles. These two decks are clearly what are considered the best deck(s). They don’t have really bad match-ups that are represented in large enough numbers to matter, and their game plan is potent enough to power through nearly everything, be it the unassailable combo kill of OmniTell, or the slow but grindy process of Miracles that always leaves the defeated opponent wondering whether they could have done something better, or if it just was gods’ will to never beat Miracles. Let me tell you, they probably screwed up. Playing against Miracles is just as hard as piloting it.
The second group of decks are not the best decks of the format. But they are competitive, well built, nicely thought out, and can compete on the grand scale. They lack something though, be it a favorable position towards the most played deck (not necessarily the best deck), or be it a fundamental flaw in their game plan (yes, I’m looking at you UWR Delver). The list of competitive decks is very long, and is probably what most people will bring to a big tournament, simply because they own these cards and are used to playing with them. And there’s nothing wrong with that. With the exception that they probably won’t Top 8 a Grand Prix. If your goal is simply to “make Day 2,” which it never should, then you’re perfectly fine in choosing one of those decks. All of those decks should also be on your very radar when preparing. Not just some, but all. You’ll be forced to play against a decent number of those.
But you can still play those competitive decks for a very good reason, and that reason is metagaming. You can tweak some of those decks to have a very good stance towards the top decks, making an inferior deck a superior choice. Want an example? Well, I don’t consider Shardless BUG the best deck. It has a lot of very restricting factors that limit not only the choice of cards you can select from when deckbuilding, but also the way you play in a drastic fashion. It does, however, pose a very potent threat to one of the best decks – namely Miracles. It is by no means unwinnable for the Miracle menace, but Shardless BUG is clearly favored. Jean-Mary Accart has also been known to splash a fourth color in order to enable the deck to feature the full set of Meddling Mages, covering one of its weakness, combo, in the postboarded games. Here’s the list that Tristan Pölzl used to win the Legacy main event of the Ovino Spring tournament with:
Shardless BUG, by Tristan Pölzl
4 Force of Will
4 Abrupt Decay
2 Toxic Deluge
3 Liliana of the Veil
1 Maelstrom Pulse
4 Ancestral Vision
1 Sylvan Library
2 Jace, the Mind Sculptor
4 Deathrite Shaman
4 Shardless Agent
Mana Sources (22)
4 Misty Rainforest
4 Verdant Catacombs
1 Polluted Delta
1 Marsh Flats
4 Underground Sea
1 Tropical Island
4 Meddling Mage
1 Swords to Plowshares
1 Null Rod
1 Pithing Needle
1 Grafdigger’s Cage
1 Leyline of the Void
1 Night of Souls’ Betrayal
Another potent example of a competitive decks that can be tailored towards a very specific metagame that focuses on beating the best decks is Grixis. There hasn’t really been a consensus on how to build Grixis, be it Delver, Pyromancer, or Standstill, or something in between. But these colors promise a very favorable position against Miracles and OmniTell alike. Most of these strategies do have a couple of downsides that are different from deck to deck, but the one thing they have in common is that these downsides are more frequently played than the bad match-ups of the best decks.
So, the first thing you need to think about is the spot you want to position yourself in. Do you want to be at the top, defending yourself from all those pesky players that teched out their lists in order to beat your well known one? Or would you rather be the sneaky type that plays something that isn’t on everyone’s radar, with the upside of having a very good matchup against the “best” decks you’re targeting? I can’t answer that for you, but just think about the way you’d like to enter this tournament, and also keep the amount of familiarity in mind that you have with your deck choice. Choosing between the best deck and the better equipped of the competitive ones is a fair choice that does not favor either of the options. Just make sure that you don’t end up playing your pet deck, just because you feel like it’s on the apex of the competitive decks. Do yourself this favor and try to avoid that.
Where to Start?
Start at a well-proven list. I know net-decking isn’t very liked, especially in communities of Eternal formats, but that’s just casual nonsense. If you want to succeed at any given tournament you want to maximize your chances, in every way possible. Priding yourself in playing your very own deck is something you can certainly do at your local tournament, but a Grand Prix is no place for that. Take a well proven list and test the hell out of it before you change anything. I’ll get to what “testing” actually means a little later.
One of the worst things to do is to take a well proven list and make some changes before actually trying it out. If somebody wins with a list, then word has it that they knew what they were doing. Most of the slots were filled with a purpose in mind, most cards chosen in hindsight. Changing a Flusterstorm to a Spell Pierce just because you like it better is a sin. Nothing less.
How to Begin Your Testing
The very first step depends greatly on how much experience you have and the way you want to approach this whole tournament with. The first thing to do, and one that I’ll take for granted in this very scenario, is your familiarity with the deck. If this shouldn’t be the case, then the first step is very easy. Play Magic. A lot.
If you’ve done that, then the real work begins. You need to gather a group of people around you. At the very best they’re all better than you, as this provides one of the best learning possibilities. Don’t shy away from people that are rough sometimes, as long as they know what they’re doing, and you like them at least a little bit. Testing partners do not have to be your friends, as friends tend to be very conformable, and there’s hardly any worse than people just nodding at your every idea, passing it through as the one and only truth. This will leave you with a terrible piece of trash to play in a big tournament, and the only one to blame is you. Just don’t do that.
When it comes to choosing a group to test with, there are practically two paths you can take. The one group is a bunch of people that share one goal: doing well at the event in question. They’ll play the best deck, they’ll play the best competitive deck, but they’ll also play their pet deck. The group is mixed of people of all directions – combo, control, and the bunch of things that aren’t really aggro, but splitting them up into midrange and tempo isn’t something that helps, either. Ah, Legacy. Having such a diverse groups has the upsides of testing against, hopefully, capable players of all the different decks. On the other hand, though, there’s the danger of developing an inbred testing meta. If your Grixis player(s) is/are confident that playing Delver and Pyromancer is correct, and all you do is test against this deck, then you run into the problem of the possibility that in reality Grixis has to be built in a Standstill shell to be more competitive, and all you did was test against a worse variant of something potentially good (this whole example was purely fabricated, which doesn’t mean it’s absolutely wrong).
Having a mixed group can also help to get new ideas as there are always two perspectives to a match, and while you might be thinking that your Tarmogoyf was insane in this very match, it maybe wasn’t the Goyf itself, but rather something different. Your opponent can let you know and help you escape the hole of selfish overestimation.
The second group of people that you can gather around you is a group of like-minded people that want to play the very same deck, for example Canadian Threshold. The upside of this group is that you have a multitude of different opinions that keep you from brewing your own dreamt up variant of the unbeatable deck that, in fact, loses to everything. Having different opinions can be a great opportunity to gather ideas. On the other hand, though, you have to make a decision who to trust and who to listen. That’s very important. Listen to everybody that you invite, but don’t trust everybody.
If you are testing in a group that are all committed to playing one deck, then make sure to have capable testing partners of the other decks as well, as testing results will most likely be skewed if you are playing Miracles vs. a Miracles player that is playing Canadian Threshold. It’s very likely that Miracles will win, by a pretty big margin, despite this not being the way that this confrontation should end, with standard builds on both sides. And again, try to play against people better than you. You learn the most when losing, not while winning.
How to Play
Testing isn’t done on message boards, in Facebook groups, or at your local tavern, drinking beer and sharing stories of the one time you so skillfully cast Brainstorm that all the spectators started screaming in joy. Testing is done on the battlefield, where you have to prove your valor and endurance. You won’t be done after a match or two. You’ll have to sink into the swamp of repetition. There’s no way around it. Play, play, and play. Theories won’t help you. Perfect decklists won’t help you. Because you’ll screw it up if you don’t practice. You are better off playing a worse deck with superior knowledge than vice versa. But how do you test meaningfully? Well, that’s not that easy. I don’t claim to know the truth, but let me tell you how I do it. I divide testing into three parts.
First, we have what I call “field-testing.” This involves taking your list and jamming it against random decks in the hands of average or better people. You will not get a reliable source of winning percentages from here, but what you will find holes in your game plan. If all you’ve done up to this point is jamming theory then it’s time to see if it works. And it doesn’t matter if you win more than 70% of your matches or not, or if you’re undefeated against your worst match-up. All that matters is to see how your deck runs. Do you play enough lands? How does your sideboard work when it comes to boarding? Do you have enough to bring in / board out? Did you forget any deck in your preparation? These are the questions that you want to be answering in this step.
Second, there is structured testing. You find somebody that you trust. Try to get the best players you can, try to get ones that you have a very hard time beating. There you’ll learn the most. If you do not have access to them, take the ones that are very committed and will play a great deal of Magic with you, while still being reasonably experienced with their deck in question. Now you test specific matchups. Then you jam Miracles against Grixis Standstill and take notes. The way I do this is the following: we play 4 pre-boarded games and 6 post-boarded ones in each set. Players alternate play/draw. After 10 games you have nothing or value, though. You can go 10-0 and still be up against a deck that you’d rather avoid seeing at the tournament you’re preparing for. Despite the fact that there is no true number of sets to do before you can draw conclusions, I’d propose to do around 5-10 sets, if possible. With 50-100 games in one matchup you have a rather good idea of how things work. The thing you test, though, isn’t cards. It is configurations. Don’t draw too many conclusions from just moving one sideboarded Vendilion Clique to the main deck. You’re still testing your, let’s say Ponder/Snapcaster based Miracles, with just one Clique. You are in fact not testing the Clique, but the configuration as a whole. You don’t have to re-do your spreadsheet just because you changed a couple of cards since you last tested. It’s still the same basic deck, just a few cards have changed, maybe even just switched positions between main and sideboard.
Third, there’s testing of specific scenarios. You want to see how good Rest in Peace is against Team America? Then you play post-board games only. And while you are still protocolling the % of games you win you focus on how a certain card performs. Even if you win the game after resolving Rest in Peace, this doesn’t mean that this card is good, and vice versa when losing. You have to take a step back and see how a card performs. The best thing to do here is to document the rough way the game went after resolving that spell. Did you opponents boarding plan involve effective answers to it? Does it hinder your own game plan at all? What was your opponent’s facial expression…okay, just kidding, but this is actually very important at real tournaments. Looking at how a card performs is very important. If your designated hate card doesn’t win the game by itself while not even contributing a lot to winning it, then you should be re-thinking your hate card, despite the fact that you might have won most of the games you resolved that card. Try to break out of the patterns of result-oriented thinking, and it will enrich your testing experience, and will help you grow as a player and reach much higher goals.
How to Process New Ideas in Testing
No matter which group you are in, or which deck you are testing, somebody has brought up a great idea. It’s a different angle of attack and should be played as a 1-of in your sideboard. How do you get around to testing it? Just jamming your deck vs. Legacy isn’t going to help, given the statistical chances of you actually drawing this card in the matches you want it to. What you can do here is this: you test just the matchups that this card is for. Just ignore Miracles if this card isn’t for that matchup. You’ll come back to testing this matchup later. The next thing to do is to either play more than 15 sideboard cards, or build a sideboard that doesn’t represent a sideboard that you’d actually play at a tournament, featuring three or four of the card that you initially wanted to test. When you are testing this very card, try to stick to the third technique that I introduced above: try to evaluate the card itself, not whether you won or lost that match.
Somebody had an idea. But how do you integrate it? That’s one of this spots where it’s great to have many people at your disposal, and this is something that I’ll talk about in a bit. Hear every idea out. Which slots could you cut from your latest list to integrate Spell Snare, for example? Listen to people, they might just have the right idea, while you are trapped in your dogma that is building your deck the way you want it.
Be flexible when it comes to testing. As mentioned above, listen to every idea, and give it a try, at least in field testing. You don’t have to jam 50+ games with an idea that you don’t like. But give it a try. Chance has it, that you could be wrong. And there’s nothing harder to admit that you were, but it’s also incredibly rewarding. As flexible as you should be while testing, the stiffer you should be when the tournament itself is approaching. Do not change too much around in panic too close to the event itself. There will always be people telling you things they believe in. They’ll tell you that they are right and that they did the testing, and that their testing is better than yours. Don’t trust them, unless you have a really good reason for it. Keep what you’ve spent your time with, the deck that you and your group have built, that you invested your sweat and blood into. Do not change in panic, you’ll regret it pretty soon in the tournament.
Another important factor when it comes to ideas is theory. I am well aware of the fact that I said above that the most important thing is practice and not theory, but you cannot always play Magic all day long. What I love to do is take part in discussions throughout the day. I, for example, am part of several Miracle Chats, made by myself. They differ in number of participants and also topics. But they have one thing in common: you can talk about Miracles throughout your day, you can share your results, and ask for new ideas. Sometimes the things that are brought up just aren’t worth testing, but so many great ideas just came from discussing. If you’re sitting there, all by yourself it’s very easy that you are happy with your list. If you have a lot of people to talk to, it’s very likely that you’ll never be. As mentioned above, it’s important to be open to ideas, but it’s also vital to know when to close yourself off and ignore what others say. Additionally, not every idea is worth testing. Some are just plain rubbish. No matter how little time I have for Magic sometimes, there’s always the glance at the smartphone, and seeing people talk about Miracles. Even though I cannot contribute at all times it is also a way to keep involved, to not get disconnected from the game itself. All I can say is that it has helped me a lot, and I know of several other chats of this very nature for different decks/people. If you aren’t part of one yet, try to join one or make your own.
In testing you’ll create a lot of lists every day you spend testing. You’ll shift around slots, you’ll re-do your underlying principle, and you’ll try a lot of things you end up discarding. Try to not delete these lists. Save them. The way I do this is:
GP Lille – Miracles #3
GP Lille – Miracles #4
GP Lille – Miracles #5
Sometimes when you are stuck at #5, maybe it’s worth going back and seeing where you branched off. Maybe an older version is simply superior. Not every innovation makes your deck better. I’d actually argue that more than 50% of changes just make your deck worse. Documenting it like this is a great way to keep track of where you are going, and also an enjoyable experience to come back to, after a long time. I love taking a look at the list that I took to GP Strasbourg, my second Grand Prix, where I made Top 64 with a deck that I considered very good, which in fact, was not.
In summary, when testing it’s important to join or create a group, be it companions of your deck or just people of the same skill level preparing for a tournament. Make sure to start with a good list and don’t change too much unless you are reasonable familiar with it. Test carefully, protocol whatever you do, and always make sure to know what exactly it is that you’re testing, be it your deck or a single card’s impact. Try to connect with people – collaboration is an important factor of human success, and Magic is no different. And lastly, enjoy yourself. It’s not your job, after all.
Practical Tips for Grand Prix Lille
I’ve tried to stay very theoretical and abstract in the passages above, but let’s talk a little bit about Legacy in its current, pre-GP Lille, state, shall we? As mentioned above, the best decks right now are Miracles and OmniTell. Picking one of either simply cannot be a mistake, unless you have no idea how to pilot Miracles, which will not only result in a lot of stumbles and failings, just like with any other deck, but you will also annoy everybody around you and your opponent glacially slow play. You aren’t doing yourself a favor to play this deck if you aren’t fast enough. And you are certainly not doing anybody else a favor, as well. Just play Belcher…I’m sorry, I mean just go and practice more before bringing it to a GP.
I, personally, have a very strict understanding on what makes Miracles the best deck, and I wouldn’t consider a Karakas or Mentor-based variant to be as well positioned as a Snapcaster/Ponder one, but this shouldn’t be the article to discuss this, and it would also be pretty unwise to share my exact list for the Grand Prix 4 weeks prior to said event. If you’re starting your list off with 4 Ponder, however, you are doing things somewhat right, be assured.
For OmniTell, however, things are looking to be pretty streamlined after Shouta Yasooka’s Top 8 at GP Kyoto recently. If you’re starting your testing with this list, then you are on a good track, for sure.
OmniTell, by Shouta Yasooka – Grand Prix Kyoto Top 8
4 Force of Will
4 Spell Pierce
4 Gitaxian Probe
4 Dig Through Time
3 Cunning Wish
4 Show and Tell
2 Emrakul, the AEons Torn
Mana Sources (18)
2 City of Traitors
4 Flooded Strand
4 Polluted Delta
1 Misty Rainforest
2 Volcanic Island
1 Eladamri’s Call
1 Firemind’s Foresight
1 Release the Ants
1 Wipe Away
1 Surgical Extraction
1 Red Elemental Blast
1 Through the Breach
2 Young Pyromancer
2 Lightning Bolt
Now onto the trickier part. Which decks do I believe to be the best competitive decks? Let me tell you one thing: Delver is not part of them. The following three decks are what I consider good leaping points to tangle the metagame from: Shardless BUG, Grixis Control, and Storm. Yes, no Delver. I mean, who’d like to attack with a creature if you could also kill your opponent with your combo, draw a bunch of cards with Dig Through Time, or simply refuse to die? And while we are at it, yes Dig Through Time is an insanely powerful card right now, and the very best reason why OmniTell is more than an inconsistent piece of blue nonsense. Prior to Dig Through Time this deck was playing inferior combo pieces such as Dream Halls, and had to play cards that were just dead up until the point where you were supposed to have won already, when you cheated your big enchantment into play. Dig Through Time changed this and propelled OmniTell at the very top of our format. It may have been overshadowed by Treasure Cruise era few months earlier, but paying UU for this double-Impulse effect is pretty good. The cost of having to play Magic is a rather reasonable one, and with the exception of having too many of them in your opening hand this card is very good. People are already talking about seeing it banned in Legacy, but I mean people are always talking about things getting banned, just as if this was the pure reason of this game and the very single point of discussion. If all of them would invest as much time into any given archetype as they do complaining we’d see more streamlined and well-built decks.
If you want to attack the metagame from the BUG standpoint you just have to scroll up to the Shardless BUG list and start from there. This deck has its weaknesses, but I still believe it to be positioned very well for the metagame to come. And who’d want to take 2 cards out of 7 when you can straight up draw three anyways, like in the good old Treasure Cruise days? I also cannot think of any reasons to play Team America (BUG Tempo) over Shardless BUG. I can’t imagine how much fun it must be to get mauled by Miracles all the time while still not having a perfect win-percentage against the rest of the field. Do yourself a favor and stay away from Delver.
If it’s Grixis that you want to start from then you have two options. The first one involves drawing a lot of cards and then riding inferior creatures to victory, while the other one is storming out your opponent. If you want to go the control route then you’ll have all the good cards to deal with Miracles and OmniTell. You have access to Red Elemental Blast and Thoughtseize, while still being able to use Snapcaster Mage to rebuy all of them. Word has it, that these cards are pretty good against both of them. The problem of this deck however, in my humble opinion, is the win condition.
Young Pyromancer has been great in the Treasure Cruise era, and is certainly still a good card, but you’d rather not tap out very early for it, and later you don’t have enough gas left in your hand to abuse him to his full potential. What’s left to choose from is blue creatures that are killed by literally everything, like Snapcaster Mage or Vendilion Clique. On the other hand you could also try to play graveyard dependent creatures like Tasigur, the Golden Fang or Gurmag Angler. I can’t leave you with an optimal starting list, but I can give you the 75 that I was testing when I stopped working on this deck, due to concentrating on Miracles. It’s only fair to say that it wasn’t me who came up with the underlying structure of this deck. It was multiple people, including me, coming to very similar results. And yes, it really hurts my heart to only play 3 Ponder. It really does.
Grixis Control, by Philipp Schonegger
The last deck that you could start from is also Grixis, though a little different around the stormy edges. Storm and Miracles have one thing in common. Don’t pick it up if you’re not reasonably comfortable with the basics. While you will still be able to win with Miracles, even if you’re not good, you’re just going to be a millstone around everybody’s neck. This doesn’t quite hold true for Storm. I mean, sure, there are the very easy kills that make this deck look like a kindergarten exercise, but in fact, it’s really damn hard. This deck is fast and powerful enough to punch through most decks, unless they’re casting Chalice on their first turn. It’s certainly a powerful deck, and I’d rather focus on playing it than building it. Your starting point should probably be Kai Thiele’s list from GP Kyoto:
Ad Nauseam Tendrils, by Kai Thiele – Grand Prix Kyoto Top 8
3 Cabal Therapy
4 Gitaxian Probe
4 Infernal Tutor
2 Past in Flames
1 Ad Nauseam
1 Tendrils of Agony
Mana Sources (32)
4 Lion’s Eye Diamond
4 Lotus Petal
4 Dark Ritual
1 Rain of Filth
4 Cabal Ritual
4 Misty Rainforest
3 Polluted Delta
1 Flooded Strand
2 Underground Sea
1 Tropical Island
1 Volcanic Island
2 Xantid Swarm
3 Dread of Night
2 Chain of Vapor
4 Abrupt Decay
1 Krosan Grip
1 Empty the Warrens
I hope I was able to give you a good overview as to how I think that you can improve your testing process, and also a quick view of the decks that I’d advise you to start testing with. If you take any of the decks listed in the article and test a lot, you are certainly going to have a good shot at GP Lille. Just make sure you’re doing something and try to stay away from those pesky things called creatures. Why would anybody want to play with them anyways, unless they make you cast Ancestral Vision of flashback Brainstorm?
Let me know what you thought of this article. Do you disagree? Do you have anything to add? Let me know in the comment section below and if you liked what you read, make sure to share it!
PS: Yes, it’s Miracles. We should all be playing Miracles.