#38 — Ask the right questions.
This one is almost trivial. Sometimes a question can be so simple and direct, it almost seems the answer is in the question.
If you are playing a Delver of Secrets + Lightning Bolt deck in any format, you are likely going to win by reducing your opponent’s life total to zero. This is the problem we have to solve here: Reducing our opponent’s life total.
One question could be: How can we deal the most damage to our opponent? But that’s not the question we need answered! We only need to deal 20 damage to our opponent, sometimes even less. Let’s suppose there are two ways to play the game. One allows us two deal 40 damage to our opponent half the time but only ten the other half. On average, we deal 25 damage to our opponent with this option. The other solution allows us to deal 20 damage three out of five games, while we deal zero damage in the other two. Here, the expected value is much lower, but the success rate is actually higher. Let’s try for a more specific question.
How do we deal 20 damage to our opponent most reliably?
This one is close, but not ideal. We no longer have the issue of measuring irrelevant damage, so that’s good. But we are still not very specific. What does our deck do? Both Delver of Secrets and Lightning Bolt deal damage in increments of three. How does that translate to a better question? How about this:
How can we most efficiently Lightning Bolt our opponent?
In this case, Lightning Bolt is not the card Lightning Bolt specifically, but rather a strategy. When I see other players with these kinds of decks, I often think they are not playing aggressively enough. If your goal is to Bolt your opponent’s face, then don’t be embarrassed to use your cards as virtual Lightning Bolts, regardless of card disadvantage.
One of my favourite memories from playing Canadian Threshold was a game against Punishing Maverick, where I countered the same copy of Punishing Fire for three consecutive turns — once even with Force of Will — despite my opponent’s Grove of the Burnwillows. I traded four of my cards for damage and tempo. By the time my opponent could finally handle my Insectile Aberration, I had already set up a pair of lethal Lightning Bolts.
One thing to keep in mind is that a question can not only be too broad but also too specific. Reducing your opponent’s life total to zero is only one way to win the game. Just as an Infect deck might win with regular damage, sometimes you don’t need your regular kill condition to win a game. I once played a game with a Doomsday deck where I naturally decked myself with draw spells to kill my opponent with Laboratory Maniac without ever casting Doomsday. In that game, it would not have helped to ask myself how to best resolve Doomsday; the real question was how to enable Laboratory Maniac.
#39 — Find bottlenecks.
This one is very important for building and piloting Storm properly, but it’s also important for other decks. Way back in 2011, Spell Snare was everywhere, so resolving Infernal Tutor could be very hard. My solution for the problem? Moving all copies of Infernal Tutor to my sideboard to replace with additional Tendrils of Agony, letting all those Spell Snares rot in my opponents’ hands.
Likewise, when I’m playing Burn in Modern (well, not currently…) I notice a lot of decks don’t have sufficient interaction before sideboarding. Games get much harder after sideboarding, but usually, that’s not even because players bring large amounts of life gain cards. The real issue here is how much damage I can expect to deal with my creatures, which is not much after boarding. The easiest way for most decks to interact with Burn is to stack up on removal, preventing me from putting myself in an advantageous position in the early game. Maybe I should board out some of those creatures and just stick to burning my opponents’ faces.
#40 — What can you add, what can you remove?
Sometimes less is more. Other times, more is more. When you are working on a deck, consider adding a colour. We did that with Canadian Threshold when Deathrite Shaman was printed. Ironically, adding a card of another colour fixed the mana at the same time. Deathrite Shaman also turned many three-colour decks in Modern into four- or even five-colour decks.
At the same time, Abrupt Decay quickly found its way into Storm sideboards, making me think that maybe we should have splashed for Krosan Grips before, which I personally did not consider at the time, what with Storm already being in three colours.
Likewise, it can be a good idea to build an additional angle of attack into your deck. Sultai Delver decks often have access to some planeswalkers as alternate win conditions, or permanents like Sylvan Library and Winter Orb. All of these attack resources other than the opponent’s life total, but they can still supplement the general goal of building up an advantage early and riding it to victory.
On the flip side, sometimes it’s a good idea to simplify things. Historically, Delver decks in both Modern and Legacy often run three colours. But when Treasure Cruise was legal, almost all Delver decks were straight blue/red. It made perfect sense to have a more streamlined deck when all you wanted to do was chain draw-three’s with as much damage output in between as possible.
Melira Pod evolved the same way. Originally the deck was full with silver bullets, but over time it became a deck that was basically Jund with spell creatures and Birthing Pod as the planeswalker of choice. Eventually, there were even maindeck removal and discard spells in the deck!
#41 — Beating Combo decks is not about hard locks.
This is something I see players try all the time. They’re playing a deck that is light on interaction with combo decks and look for permanents that completely foil a strategy. But if your plan is to cast Trinisphere on turn three against my Storm deck, you are not going to win matches. You might win an odd game here and there, but most games, that’s not going to be enough.
If you are playing against combo, you always have to be the aggressor. If you don’t do anything, they will just kill you. So you need a victory condition. To ensure you have enough time for said victory condition to do its work, you need to deploy roadblocks for your combo opponents whenever you can. With most cards, you can expect to delay them by one turn at most, so make sure you can create a window to drop your victory condition in time — you might slow them down until turn six, but if by the time you can drop your Tarmogoyf they have already dealt with all of your interaction, you are still not winning.
(I’m going to write a full-length article on this topic soon, but I wanted to include here anyway, because the general idea is still worth mentioning. I will link to it once it’s finished.)
#42 — You can punish people for playing bad decks. But also for playing good decks.
This is what drew me to Storm in the first place. In most formats, you get to choose between playing a powerful deck that beats up all kinds of nonsense (Atarka Red in BFZ Standard) or a more specifically metagamed deck that preys on whatever is actually good in the format (see almost every control deck ever). Very rarely do you have a deck that gets to beat everything (even with few exceptions), but it usually starts with a intrinsically powerful strategy.
#43 — You have to beat the winning metagame.
This is something I learned in smaller, local tournaments, but it’s definitely true in big tournaments like Grand Prix as well. Modern is a great example for that currently. You will likely have to face some of the 80% share of the metagame that is not Eldrazi decks on day one of a Grand Prix, but come day two, you better be prepared to face Eldrazi.
There might only be one Reanimator player in your local 30-player tournament, but if that person is always winning, you will have to go through them if you want to come in first place. The might only be 3% of the overall metagame, but in reality, they make up for 20% of your matches.
I’m usually fine with having bad matchups against niche decks for that very reason — the more I’m winning, the less likely it becomes I’m going to face them, so who cares I have a bad matchup? Chances are my tournament is going downhill anyway by the time I face them.
#44 — Don’t be attached to decks. Don’t be dismissive.
I played a lot of Storm when it wasn’t good. I played a lot of Canadian Threshold when it wasn’t good. It didn’t work out well. I’m over it and I’m much more open to new decks now. That can be time-consuming, but it’s worth it. As I’m building up my collection on Magic Online, I want to see if I can catch up with all the decks I have previously dismissed as being inconsistent or not powerful, in both Modern and Legacy.