[MTGS Classics]Scrubland: The Four Pillars

Hello, and welcome to the third episode of Scrubland! I’m your host, and you can call me Jim.

It’s been a while since my last installment, and for that I apologize. Real life got in the way of writing about Magic (the darned thing).

This time I’m going to talk about some more basic theory. I want to focus on the Pillars of Magic, which you may or may not already be familiar with. There are many ways to gain an advantage in a Magic game, but there are a few core concepts that you have to be aware of to give yourself the greatest chance of doing well.

The Pillars of Magic are, in no particular order:

- Playskill
- Edge on Deck
- Familiarity
- Luck
It’s these elements that will largely determine your chances in a tournament. In fact, there’s not much outside these pillars that will affect your game. I’ll cover each pillar in detail so that you have an idea of what you should be concentrating on for any given tournament.


Playskill is the most obvious and most encompassing pillar. It is defined as “how good one is at playing Magic.” This is the pillar my column most commonly focuses on, because this pillar is the hardest to master.

There are strategy articles all over the Internet. Some of them focus on advanced strategy, others on basic strategy, and some of them focus on psychology. They’re all designed for one thing: making you better at playing the game. They ignore specific card choices and playing the metagame, and focus on the fundamentals of being good at Magic. These articles are playskill articles.

(While I'm at it, bookmark this thread. It's a collection of all of the best strategy articles ever published on the Internet - kudos to You Are Not Pro for posting and maintaining it.)

The player entering the tournament with a DCI rating of 1800+ generally has a good amount of playskill. The player who just finished last week with a record of one win and three losses generally does not. You can only get better at playing Magic through heavy practice and study. If you do, you can strengthen this pillar to the point where you will be able to compete with the best in your area.

Playskill is mainly important because it is the most active pillar while you are playing a game. The players with the most amount of playskill make the best plays with the cards they have, and those players go on to win tournaments.

Edge on Deck

RIP KCI 2004-2005
There is a branch of theory in Magic that is sometimes referred to as “edge on deck”. Mike Flores is one of the famous (or infamous, depending on your perspective) writers who is constantly questing for the edge on Deck. In recent times, the edge on deck has become more important than ever, because it’s seemingly impossible to find in today’s formats. Sure, there are people all over the Internet who will claim such and such deck is superior to every other one, but the numbers simply aren’t there.

Edge on Deck is so crucial because it is the best way to ensure victory in a Magic game. If you have the best deck in a given environment, you’ve given yourself the best chance to do well in that environment. It’s as simple as that.

Edge on deck involves an awful amount of planning and theorizing. The myriad theories involving the metagame come directly under this pillar’s umbrella, because having the best deck for a given metagame is having the edge on deck. The general theories about deck design are also a part of this pillar, because having a well-built deck is often going to give you edge on deck (or, at the very least, prevent others from having it over you).

There are stories from Magic’s history about this pillar overshadowing all of the others. In an amateur tournament held a few years ago at a Pro Tour, a 15-year old player borrowed his friend’s Krark-Clan Ironworks combo deck and won the entire tournament. When asked about his deck, the player said something like, “Yeah, I borrowed it from my friend. I’ve never played this deck before, but I will now!” I have always remembered this as “the time edge on deck won.” Unfortunately, there haven’t been any broken combo decks since that time, so you have to realize that, while edge on deck is important, it isn’t going to win you the tournament on its own.


Familiarity is simply comprehension and understanding of the many elements involved in a game, match, or tournament of Magic. Knowing your deck well will lead to better plays in a given match that may significantly change your position in the tournament. Sometimes, it only takes one play to completely ruin your chances of winning; even though you may have only lost one match, you’re now in a lower bracket than you would have been, and this bracket may be less friendly to your deck (it might have a higher concentration of bad matchups, for example). This might lead to another loss, and an even worse bracket - or even a drop.

This is why familiarity is so important. While playskill lets you separate good plays from bad ones based on theory, familiarity is what allows you to recognize when the best plays can be made. Similarly, sometimes the best play according to playskill is not the same as the best play according to familiarity. Also, edge on deck is worthless if you’re bringing a deck into an unfamiliar metagame. In other words, familiarity is good because it completes the other pillars.


I’m sure you’ve blamed something on luck in your competitive career; everyone has. That’s probably because luck is one of the largest factors governing the outcome of a Magic game. I know that there is very little you can do to affect your luck, but that doesn’t change the fact that fantastically-timed topdecks can and will decide many games.

Krark was well-known for his skill at
playing Quarters.

Always remember that luck is a factor, and it is simultaneously on both your side and your opponent’s side. There are times when you will draw the exact card that you needed to win the game, and there are times when your opponent will do exactly the same thing.

As I mentioned, there are very few things that you can do to control luck. However, there are some things you can do, and these things are considered to be essential parts of playing Magic - probably because they do limit luck as a factor.

The first of these techniques is shuffling properly. The average tournament player collates his deck before each tournament - they’ll organize it into lands, creatures, spells, by mana cost, etc. They basically do the opposite of shuffling. They do this because it’s then easier to write down the deck list for registration. The downside is that, if you do not randomize the cards properly, you may never see what you want to see in a real game of Magic. Therefore, you have to shuffle a lot, and do it before each game. I have found success by “pile” shuffling twice into seven piles while doing “riffle” shuffles. Other players have found success by other means. I’ve heard reports of professionals “pile” shuffling as many as ten times before each game. This should be an obvious indicator of how important shuffling really is.

The other technique for controlling luck as a factor is to learn how to mulligan properly. There are obvious hands which you should mulligan - those with no lands, all lands, one land, one spell, White land and Green spells, etc. Sometimes, there will be hands you will be tempted to keep, because if you draw that one land, the hand becomes awesome. Well, assume the worst; in this case, that you won‘t draw the land. Mulligan the hand. There are any more basic tips on taking mulligans, but it wouldn’t be fair if I didn’t point you over to the Ferret’s article on StarCityGames.com, “How To Be A Mediocre Player.” There’s a lot of good tips there, so you should definitely check it out.

Like Glue on a Howitzer
For my FNM report this time around, I want to focus on one particular part of the event. It’s another lesson that I think every player needs to learn. It is one of the hardest things to accomplish effectively and consistently in Magic. The lesson?

Always stick to your guns.

Never let anyone tell you what you should do, or ask you to do something for them. Never hold back on the best play because you feel bad for the other player’s position. Never be sheepish about bringing your “A” game to the table.

I’ll get to why this is important later, when it becomes apparent what I mean.

First, the deck list. You all know my deck well by now, but I made a few radical changes since the last time I wrote an article. Here’s the list:

Who plays this jank?
DeckMagic OnlineOCTGN2ApprenticeBuy These Cards
4 Godless Shrine
3 Sacred Foundry
3 Blood Crypt
1 Molten Slagheap
1 Rakdos Carnarium
2 Orzhova Basilica
1 Rix Maadi, Dungeon Palace
1 Orzhova, the Church of Deals
1 Urza's Factory
1 Vesuva
3 Flagstones of Trokair
1 Plains
1 Swamp

3 Orzhov Signet
1 Boros Signet

4 Firemane Angel
4 Wildfire Emissary
2 Angel of Despair
1 Bogardan Hellkite
1 Sunhome Enforcer

4 Wrath of God
4 Phyrexian Arena
4 Lightning Helix
4 Temporal Isolation
3 Faith's Fetters
2 Nightmare Void

As you can see, there are some odd choices, and the deck looks ugly. However, Wildfire Emissary is a lot more effective than anyone seems to give it credit for, and Sunhome Enforcer was my attempt at including a fifth copy (I had an open slot and decided to try it out). I also wanted to see how effective Bogardan Hellkite was and so I slid in a singleton to act as a tertiary Angel of Despair. I also went back to using Circle of Protection: Red as a way to stop aggro, and I included Weathered Wayfarer as a way to gain mana/card advantage in the control matchup.

On to the tournament!

The day started off badly. In the first round I had the beautiful pairing against Sebastian. He was playing Solar Fires.

To say the least, it was over quickly. His combination of Lightning Angel and Giant Solifuge backed up by Bogardan Hellkite finishers left me wondering just why all of my Wrath of Gods were sandwiched somewhere in my deck (as opposed to sitting, spent, in my grave).

So I started out the day at 0-1. I think this should sound familiar to you.

In the second round, I met William Myers. He was playing a very budget version of Boros (including zero Chars). Seeing as how my deck’s strong point is handling the more highly-tuned versions of this deck, it was a pretty easy match. I don’t think William was hampered by his skill so much as he was by his collection.

I moved into the third round with three points, and it was there that I met Alex. Alex played this round with the attitude that he’d given up on his deck. I found out that he was playing a Black and Green aggro deck, featuring Silhana Ledgewalker and big, stupid elephant hammers. It seemed like a nice idea with sub-par execution, and given his general apathy, the round went very smoothly (for myself, at least).

Aside: This is the first situation where you cannot allow your opponent’s apparent inadequacy to dictate your actions. His deck had a lot of explosiveness, and even though Alex was (and is) a nice guy and I hated making him feel bad, I don’t want to lose.

I felt a little better about the first-round loss at that point, since I was at 2-1 going into the fourth round. Here, I met Robert. Robert’s been my friend for about three years now, basically around the time I started playing competitive Magic. A result of this friendship is that there’s always a lot of trash-talking going on in our matches (and, I might add, no one gets upset about it). That’s the best part about playing your friends in tournaments - every time I meet Robert, I play better Magic, because I’m more relaxed when I play against friends.

Aside: This is another thing you have to master. You can’t be shy and succeed at Magic, because you’ll be uncomfortable in every match. That has an adverse effect on your play that you just don’t need. The trick is to make everyone your friend, and never feel badly about besting them. That way, every match will feel like my matches with Robert.

Robert was playing Project X, a deck based around the combination of Saffi Eriksdotter, Crypt Champion, and any one of Soul Warden, Teysa, Orzhov Scion or Sek’kuar, Deathkeeper. If the combo fails, the deck turns into a mid-range aggressive deck that's generally able to hold its own.

I was extremely lucky in this match. In the first game, he set the combo off properly, and went to a million life. I can’t beat that with my deck, so I scooped up my cards and proceeded to sideboard. The only change was to bring in Sudden Death to replace Temporal Isolation, since the Sudden Death actually kills the creature (which is important for disrupting the combo - remember how timing is everything?).

The next two games, I roll over him. In game two, he tried to go the beatdown route, having failed to draw the right cards to “go off” with his combo side. Since the beatdown route in Project X is worse than the beatdown route in, say, Glare, I easily handled his offense and killed him with way-too-many Firemane Angels.

Still at large.

After that game, he realized that he has to combo out in order to win. So he tried to get it going, but a well-timed removal spell stopped it dead. From there, he put out a lackluster offense, hoping to draw into the last Crypt Champion he needed in order to win. For a very long time (several turns at least), he didn’t draw it, even with a Dark Confidant in play. After going through about twenty cards and not finding the Crypt Champion he needed, my Bogardan Hellkite flashed him and took it home for me.

Aside: Remember the Pillar of Luck? This is where that comes into play. If Robert had, at any time during that third game, drawn a single copy of Crypt Champion, I would have lost the game. But he didn’t, and instead I won.

I would also like you to remember that I played as if he would not draw the Champion, because if he did draw it, then there was no way I could win. The only scenario in which I could have won was if I played like he wouldn’t draw it. He didn’t draw it, so I won.

In the final round, I was paired against Aaron. Aaron was playing the White, Red, and Blue version of Firemane control. With the offensive capabilities of both decks, surely somebody would be able to win relatively quickly, right? Not so much.

As it turns out, Aaron and I were the perfect complement to each other. The first game of the match went to extra turns, and the only reason I didn’t lose to drawing out my deck was because I took the fourth of five total extra turns. This was the most boring match I’ve ever played. We traded card for card, gained card advantage, lost card advantage, and I swear we must have both returned Firemanes from the graveyard at least a dozen times each.

At the end, during his (and the game’s) final turn, the entire game became a Battle of Wills1. Essentially, we each had nine points, but if we drew and went to ten points each, neither of us would earn any prizes at all. This led to a situation where we were trying to decide who should concede the game (and be “the nice guy”) so that the other person would get prizes. It took a long time to decide this, because we were both standing our ground - we both wanted prizes, and neither of us wanted to concede.2

Right here is where the “stick-to-your-guns” lesson comes into play. During the entire proceedings, Aaron kept asking me to concede to him. He would say, “Please concede.” He kept pressing the issue on me. It was hard not to break, because he kept asking me to do so. But I stood my ground, kept my mouth shut (so as not to let a concession slip out), and I definitely didn’t let his badgering affect me. At some point, I interjected, “Why can’t you concede to me? It’s not like you’re any more likely to win this.” He didn’t have a good response.

Eventually, the judge got fed up with waiting. He issued a warning to Aaron for not starting his turn (also known as delay of game). [Editor's note: Many DCI judges will also issue a penalty for Unsportsmanlike Conduct if one player in a match repeatedly requests a concession. That was the final straw. Aaron was fed up with waiting; he said, “This is ridiculous, I’ll just concede,” picked up his cards, and confirmed that he conceded the game (and match) to me.

That left me at 4-1 on the day, at third place and in the prizes.

You see what happened there? Aaron wanted me to concede, he kept pressing the issue, but every time he asked me to concede he got more fed up with waiting himself. By being stubborn and refusing to concede, I eventually outlasted him and won some boosters for the effort.

Never give in, and never let anyone convince you to concede to them. If it winds up in a draw, then it winds up in a draw, but even that’s better than just outright losing.

That's all for this episode of Scrubland. I hope you enjoyed reading it as much as I did writing it!

1If there was a Battle of Wills card, its rules text would read, "At the beginning of your upkeep, if it's the last turn you'll take in the game, you may stare at the game state and ignore your opponent's badgering. If you do, your opponent concedes out of frustration."

2It may seem like the easy solution would be to have one player promise to split the prizes between the players. However, this is called collusion by the DCI, and if you get caught doing it, you get a nice little suspension. Please, please don't ever do it.


Posts Quoted:
Clear All Quotes