My cat isn't watching my match. She has no interest in ChK Sealed anymore. Ever since BoK came out she's been fixated on that. Hardly surprising, really. To start with, my cat's the Constructed player in our house. Secondly, she basically takes the view that Patron of the Nezumi is the biggest rat ever printed. From her perspective that means it might as well say "Legendary Creature - Lunch". Being more of a Limited player myself I'm happy with more or less any format involving 40 card decks. Since I play mostly online, that means no BoK as yet. Also, I don't like to eat rats.
Cats are evil. Now I don't wish to give you the wrong idea here. I love my cat dearly despite the fact she's evil. On this occasion, she turns around just in time to see my Seizan, Perverter of Truth get hit where it hurts by a Rend Spirit. A beatdown race ensues, during which I topdeck an 11th then a 12th land before losing with my opponent on two life.
"You suck," my cat offers, making her best evil face.
"My opponent played two Kabuto Moths, two Reciprocate, two Cage of Hands and a Yosei !" I reply in my very best aggrieved tone.
"You lost because you sideboarded wrongly," the cat points out.
In order for you to assess this accusation for yourselves, you will need to see my cardpool. Here it is:
You may be wondering where the Blue and Green cards are. Did you read that decklist?! Why on earth would you care about Blue or Green?
At first sight this decklist looks insane. My cat spent the whole week muttering "lucksack" every time she passed me on the stairs. It is a powerful deck, that much is true. It's also a surprisingly subtle beast.
Speaking of subtle beasts, let's return to my cat's accusation. Victory was mine in game one thanks to the classic turn 4 play of Nezumi Graverobber followed by cleaning the Cruel Deceiver out from my opponent's graveyard. Game two was a long war of attrition in which my Yamabushi's Flames removed his Kabuto Moths, his Scuttling Death went 3-for-1 at the expense of my Nezumi Cutthroat, and Hikari, Twilight Guardian went all the way. What is the correct way to sideboard ?
I saw no good targets for Ember-Fist Zubera, but had trouble getting the Cutthroats through safely. So, I cut the Zubera for the second Uncontrollable Anger. Also, I'd seen no Artifacts, so Hearth Kami came out for Cruel Deceiver. I swapped a Swamp out for another Mountain to avoid the embarassment of lacking double Red at the critical moment.
"You truly are the champion of thinking inside the box," my cat declared, "I bet that Sokenzan Bruiser is your most prized sideboard card isn't it? Let me guess - it comes in whenever you see a mountain?"
I pull a pouty face. I love my Bruiser. It comes in whenever I see a Mountain.
"What you have to ask yourself," my cat continues, "is: Who's the beatdown? Your deck has very few card advantage mechanisms indeed. The game you lost was to Hikari. What's your answer to Hikari?"
I look at my sideboard in abject confusion for a while. Did I miss something that can handle Hikari? Looks like it's just my maindeck Befoul. Even that's vulnerable to Arcane instants. I point out to the cat that I'm already running Befoul. This earns me a look of pity. I am then informed that if I want sideboarding tips, a can of tuna will do just fine as payment.
"It's simple," my cat explains between mouthfuls, "You are the beatdown to such an extent practically unheard of in Sealed Deck. Your solution to Hikari is to race. Watching you play, you seem to think that because you have so much removal it makes you a control deck. Absolutely not. Oh, and the Uncontrollable Anger is awful here. Now OK, you hadn't seen the Reciprocates in game two, but you might have guessed he had one and it turns Scuttling Death into a potential 4-for-1. Besides, the Anger costs four mana and still only does two damage per turn at best and lets your opponent's chump blockers do double duty. Also, having seen your opponent's deck, I don't see how you can run two Cage of Hands."
"You think I should bring in the third Cage of Hands? And another Plains, presumably ?"
My cat bangs its head slowly on the table for a few seconds with a pained look on its face.
"No !" it wagged its tail impatiently as it explained, "You've seen two Moths against which Cage does nothing. You've seen Hikari against which Cage does nothing. And your opponent is playing White! Between a tournament pack and three boosters what are the chances of a Kami of Ancient Law? High, I would say. Has it occurred to you that you could side out White ?"
It hadn't. Trying to push thoughts of "Cage is good" to the back of my mind, I started playing with rebuilds. The more I played about, the more I saw what my cat was getting at. With White gone I could add more Mountains and run Soulblast as a finisher. Adding Cruel Deceiver and Brutal Deceiver would raise my creature count nicely, but that left me needing to cut something. Then it suddenly occurred to me: Hideous Laughter. In this match I needed to rule the early game to win. If I got into the kind of position where Laughter was good, chances are I'd lost anyway.
My cat was purring now, but smiled slyly and pointed with her paw, "One more change?". I looked back over my sideboard again.
"Surely not Distress ? There's only one card worth using it on: Hikari. Anyway, what do I cut ?"
"Distress it is. There are two as it happens: Hikari and Rend Spirit. And you cut a Mountain. Nine red sources is enough."
I built the deck and played with it a bit. It was weaker than my old build by some way and felt janky and unreliable. The cat was right, though. Against the opponent I faced, it would have been much better.
I spent the rest of the afternoon playing more matches and began to appreciate that what seemed to be the simplest deck in the world was actually very complex indeed. I was prevailed upon to turn on the fire in exchange for which my cat would provide feedback on my sideboarding every time I lost a match.
I lost to a U/W deck featuring Ghostly Prison and the two Hondens of those colours together with a bucketload of Soratami. Distress came in again, but I wasn't sure if the cat was joking recommending two copies of Midnight Covenant to slip Cutthroat damage past the Prison.
I lost to an insane near mono-G Snakes deck with Seshiro and Sosuke plus Time of Need, Strength of Cedars as a finisher, and crazy amounts of mana acceleration. Soulless Revival and more creatures came in. My cat wanted Ethereal Haze. I protested that it seemed bad against what was probably only a single copy of Strength, but the cat pointed out that with Seshiro out it would probably save me 10 life for 1 mana.
I lost to a ridiculous B/G soulshift deck which was easily able to stop my Cutthroats and was just killing me on card advantage. Obviously the third Cage of Hands came in, but the cat wanted to go much further and pull out two of the three Cutthroats too, adding in a massive White component for Lantern Kami, Hundred-Talon Kami and Samurai of the Pale Curtain. Cursed Ronin was out too due to the drop in Swamps.
My final bad matchup was against a really annoying R/G deck which seemed to consist of bucketloads of weenies and the Honden of Infinite Rage (or maybe two of 'em, since he drew one in all three games). He had Lava Spike and Kodama's Might, which he was making good use of. It didn't seem insanely powerful, but I was having real trouble.
"It's a metagame thing," my cat explained, "Just because you're playing Limited, doesn't mean there isn't a metagame. Your deck is good because it's full of removal and good early drops. An opponent who can sweep up your early drops for nothing and has no good targets for your removal simply has the advantage. That doesn't mean you can't win; it just means you have to be ready to sideboard in a radical way."
I had considered the previous tough decks to require pretty radical sideboarding. What did the cat mean? After a while, seeing my confusion, it dropped a hint: "Who's the beatdown?" And then I got it. This time I was the control deck.
"The irony is," the cat pointed out, "the one time Sokenzan Bruiser really is your silver bullet, you get all confused !"
Unfortunately, before I could think of a witty comeback, she fell asleep.
I tried to work out the sideboarding myself, but by this point I was pretty sleepy too. I collapsed into bed and dreamed about a match I'd played earlier in the day against some guy with two copies of Kumano, one of them shiny. The only difference in my dream was that he equipped the second one with Whispersilk Cloak before I could Cage it and won quite easily. It probably says something bad about my subconscious that I was more troubled by the lack of realism than the fact I was dreaming about a card game.
By the time I woke up, I'd forgotten all about the sideboarding problem I was supposed to be solving. Anyone got any ideas ?
It was a work day for me, which meant no playing Magic until I'd been awake for at least 12 hours, by which time I'd be too tired to be any good. Reading Magic websites at work seemed like the next best thing. Thinking about ChK/ChK/BoK draft archetypes, it suddenly hit me why my deck was so tricky to sideboard.
As soon as I got home, I explained the details to my cat. She was having none of it, insisting on a policy of "Dinner first, lame theories about Limited second." I give in and slop half a can of catfood into her bowl. She isn't impressed with its somewhat sewage-like appearance and wants to know what flavour it's supposed to be. "Fish!" I announce, having had to read the can. The cat mumbles a complaint which sounds like "With no Spiketail Hatchling?" but eats it anyway.
I then expound my exciting new theory. The idea is simple enough: With a draft deck, you make your card choices thinking not only about color, but also about synergy. The set of good decks is enormous, but the set of good decks you have a reasonable chance of drafting successfully is much smaller. The good drafting strategies correspond to deck archetypes. In triple-ChK that meant W/R jank, B/R spirits, B/G soulshift, U/R splice or one of half a dozen or so weaker plans.
"Get to the point," said the cat, who is not a fan of drafting.
What I had noticed was that despite being good, my deck lies outside all the strong archetypes. B/R beatdown is common enough, but with spirits. There's a good reason for this: Devouring Greed and/or Devouring Rage are excellent as finishers. And it's true, my deck was having trouble finishing. The last five points would often come from a Yamabushi's Flame followed by a Hanabi Blast and I lost count of the number of games I won with Seizan's upkeep damage.
I had expected my cat to tease me at this point, but in fact she was very interested.
"Most unusual," she mused, "in most formats, finding synergies is the path to victory. Here it seems that observing a lack of synergy is the key to maximising one's advantage. I have a theory of my own: your deck is going to do worse later in the league."
A few words of explanation are in order here. (Readers familiar with Magic Online leagues can skip this paragraph.) Magic Online leagues are not quite like other Sealed Deck formats. Each player begins the league with one tournament pack and two boosters. An additional booster pack is added for each week after the first, with the league lasting four weeks in total. What I've been talking about so far is my 'week two' deck (so that's a tournament pack and three boosters). By the end of a typical league you're building with a tournament pack and five boosters, which leads to some scarily powerful decks.
So back to my cat's attempt to see into the future. Assuming that even she wouldn't be tripping on catnip this early in the morning, I decided to risk asking for a more detailed explanation.
"It's all about making do," she explained smugly, "Sealed decks never have exactly the cards they want, so they make a few compromises."
"That's not very deep," I shrugged, "if they had everything they wanted, they'd be block constructed decks."
"No they wouldn't, because there aren't enough rares," the cat observed sadly, "Now to get back to the point: across the span of the league, each deck will converge to some strong archetype. They'll have much smoother mana curves, the splice decks will get more arcane spells, the spirit decks will be able to swap out their non-spirits and so on. Your deck, however, is too far away from a strong archetype. Broken rares aside, what would you hope to open?"
"Ronin Houndmaster?" I suggested. This was a bit of a mistake as my cat's eyes opened wide with fear and she ran from the room.
Fast forward ten days and I found myself staring that a cardpool which suggested my cat was right. I had a Devouring Greed, another Wicked Akuba, a Pain Kami (hurrah!), and a Nagao for my deck, as well as some stuff in my colors which wouldn't make the cut to maindeck, but might be nice for the sideboard, such as Kami of Ancient Law.
I eventually went for a build that added Nagao and an Eiganjo Castle (synergy!) plus the Pain Kami. This made me realise another aspect of the phenomenon my cat had noted: the extremely 3-color nature of my deck also prevented it from converging to good things. I had two Wicked Akuba if I wanted them, but they would be distinctly sub-par with my low swamp count.
I played and went 2-3. Ouch ! What a horrible result. Had I built my deck horribly wrong ? I tried to think things out logically.
My first loss was to a W/B deck that curved out beautifully both games and seemed to draw gas with every topdeck. I lost by trading 1-for-1 until his card advantage overwhelmed me. Also his Blessed Breaths kept trading with my removal, which was bad for my tempo. His double Rend Spirit wasn't good news for Seizan either.
My second loss was to a G/R deck abusing splice. I knew I was in trouble when he casually blocked my Nagao with his Orochi Sustainer and spliced Kodama's Might onto Kodama's Might to win the brawl. Actually this match was quite close, but game three went to him. We both had Hanabi Blast in that game and he was Terry Soh to my Rich Hoaen, burning me out with 6 damage after my overcosted Shock hit the trashcan.
The final blow to my results came from a charming little R/B deck featuring Blood Rites, Kokusho and Ryusei. Not that this is any excuse: those are all endgame cards. Sadly in both games the early game was spent trading 1-for-1 with his infinite stream of random critters. I got some damage in during the midgame on both occasions, but there are times when a 20-14 life advantage doesn't count for much.
Trying to analyze the problems, the answers seemed clear: I could no longer win on card quality as I did before, I lacked the finishers to win on tempo and my deck did not offer much card advantage (though in one of my matches I recurred Pain Kami with Nezumi Graverobber for the win). My deck no longer seemed good. Or was I just making excuses and either my deckbuilding or my play was to blame ?
I sat gloomily staring at my match stats, wondering if I really sucked that badly or if my cat was right.
At that moment my cat walked in.
"Oh look, I was right," she purred, "Although to do as badly as 2-3 you must really suck."
I turned round and fixed my cat with a baleful glare. Time to get my revenge.
"Did you know," I said maliciously, "that Patron of the Nezumi isn't a rat? Read the card!"
I felt better already.
('bateleur' on MtGO)