Proactive Deckbuilding

Feature Article from Conley Woods
Conley Woods
5/26/2015 11:01:00 AM
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If you have read even just a few articles of mine, chances are good that you have run across me calling something a proactive deck or a proactive plan. Many people use labels like control or aggro to establish this concept without ever touching on it, but being proactive is not as simple as being the aggro deck. Proactivity is less defined as being the aggressor and more as being able to make moves or plays independent of what your opponent is doing. Aggressive decks tend to use this approach, but a control deck can certainly be proactive under the right conditions.

In today's Standard, any and everything is possible. We see different decks winning every single week and if you look at any given Top 8, diversity is all you will see. Take a look at the TCGplayer Open 5K that happened last weekend. The Top 8 had seven unique archetypes in it and there were another three or four more if you extend that out to the Top 16. Standard is healthy at the moment, maybe more so than I have ever seen before.

However, with that diversity comes a required shift in mentality as a deckbuilder, or even just someone looking to choose a deck for the upcoming tournament.

One of my favorite methods for deckbuilding is essentially obsolete in the current environment. That method is to look for holes in specific decks, weaknesses that you can exploit. You then make a cross-section of the format and see how many of those holes fall on top of one another or near one another and then you look to exploit that weakness against multiple decks. Because there are so many viable decks right now though, finding common weaknesses across a large percentage of them is near impossible.

So rather than looking to find answers to common problems in the format, instead we can look to create a new problem. Assuming this problem is as difficult as everything else out there, but also has the element of sidestepping what few answer decks there actually are, we have a viable reason to brew.

This does come with some big “ifs” that we need to make sure are true first. Brewing just to be different is a fine thing to do, but it is not the best way to come up with a competitive new deck. So long as you are honest about what you really want from your brewing, you can choose to use this approach or not to whatever best fits your needs. Today, the goal is very much to take a look at proactive strategies and how they can be best used to win in today's Standard environment.


Understanding Proactivity

A proactive strategy is often assumed to be an aggressive strategy and there is a correlation there, but being proactive does not necessarily make you aggressive and vice versa. The easiest way to understand proactivity comes not at an archetype level, but at a simple card vs. card level.

Counterspell is the definition of a reactive card. It literally cannot be played unless the opponent plays something first. In an extreme example, if you built your deck with 20 lands and 40 Counterspells and then tried calling it proactive, that would be absurd. The deck looks to react to as many things as it can but it never puts forth a question or problem that must be answered.

On the other side of the spectrum, imagine a deck that was 20 lands and then 40 copies of Lava Spike. All the deck can do is pay a red mana and aim three damage at your head over and over again. There are no instants or ways for this deck to do anything but propose a threat over and over again and hope that is enough to kill you before you kill them.

Of course, both of these decks would be rather terrible as being so far down the spectrum either direction is pretty bad. That said, it is important to note that there is a spectrum here. Adding just a few Counterspells to the Lava Spike deck quickly gives it some element of reaction. While I would still not call the deck reactive if it had eight Counterspells in it, it would be open to plays that the purely proactive deck did not have. Counterspells alone do not make a deck reactive though.

If we were to look at archetypes, combo decks and aggro decks tend to be more proactive as they have an offensive gameplan they want to execute every single game. While they may react to some plays with removal or even a Counterspell, the deck as a whole is executing a proactive strategy. Control is thought to be reactive due to its use of Counterspells, removal, and slow win conditions. While all of that is true, more proactive control decks can certainly exist like tapout Blue from the Kamigawa era or even Esper Dragons today. While that deck will certainly react to your spells, it only does so to Clear a Path for Ojutai which is quite the proactive threat. Four turns lead to victory and Esper Dragons very much wants to pull this off every game.

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The deck understands that Ojutai is not enough against some decks though so at that point, a surrounding cast is needed. In some cases, like Bant, we see a surrounding cast that actually is proactive and contains a lot of individual threats. Esper Dragons, while being proactive for a control deck, definitely falls on the other end of the spectrum still where its supporting cast is intended to slow the game down rather than speed it up.


Proactive Deckbuilding and Adapting to the Metagame

As a competitive deckbuilder, while your end goal should be to design tournament winning, or at least successful, decks, that is not a one-step process. You cannot just build decks in the dark and expect to succeed with them. This is perhaps the biggest flaw with up-and-coming builders. Rather than building toward a purpose or goal, they simply build. That creation tends to have poor results and leaves the builder frustrated.

The state of the format is called a metagame for a reason. The all-encompassing makeup of decks, strategies, combinations, and cards that are being played right now should be your first reference before building a deck. You might come up with the best monored deck idea ever but if the format is extremely hostile to monored, you will end up with poor results regardless.

Analyzing the metagame and adjusting your build-style accordingly will help to ensure you are spending your time in a productive manner. You can always stumble upon something amazing using any method of deckbuilding, but we are looking to make your results more consistent for all of those times you don't happen to just break the format wide open.

By analyzing what other people are doing, we can shift what our general plan of attack is. Some deckbuilders will never develop this skill and instead choose to stay specialists. Maybe they only play control or only play aggro. That method has some merit, but I find that it relies too much on the stars aligning for my tastes.

If you are a control specialist and control is not good for multiple years, as we have seen before, it is easy for you to never produce anything worthwhile during that time frame. If you are trying to adapt, you still might miss, but I like taking stabs at it over and over rather than waiting for the format to rotate to a spot where your specialty can shine. In other words, I prefer being a proactive deckbuilder. Right now, proactive deckbuilding happens to be about building proactive decks, but that can always change with a shift in the metagame.


Why it Matters

Being proactive in the current Standard is almost the only way to go. First of all, multiple strong control decks have already surfaced and because control decks are not defined by their many removal spells or draw spells, but rather on the makeup of the deck as a whole, it is unlikely you will be changing Esper Dragons or Five Color Dragons in some meaningful way that has not already been done.

So if you wish to focus your efforts in a place that might bear fruit, we need to look at the other end of the spectrum. Not only are proactive decks greater in number in this particular format, allowing us to play almost any color combination and any set of cards, but they also give us the best chance when walking into a wide open field.

If I show up with Esper Dragons and have a deck full of Counterspells and one for one removal, then play against Monored every round, I am going to lose despite my deck being one of the best in the field. I guessed my opponent's strategies incorrectly and did not have the right tools to beat the field that showed up. Similarly, if I show up with all sweepers and life gain but run into control mirrors, I am going to have a rough time.

Being proactive helps to Remove this guessing game from the equation. Playing the guessing game is sometimes correct when there are few decks and there are many qualities that help your predictions, but in a format where there are dozens of viable archetypes, even roughly predicting your matchups across 15 rounds is going to be impossible.

With a proactive strategy, while you cannot just ignore what your opponent is doing in most cases, it will matter less. Take a deck like Monogreen Devotion, for example. If it realizes its opponent is on Esper Dragons, it is going to play differently than it would against UW Heroic. Maybe it tries not to overextend into a Crux of Fate or whatever. Just because the deck is playing differently and adapting to its opponent does not change the fact that it is the more proactive deck in the match up. It is looking to play threats and see if Esper can answer them all. Or against UW Heroic, it is looking to play threats and race the opponent. In both cases, threats are being cast and that is the important distinction.


Homework

I wanted to do more than just talk about proactivity and instead actually get a little hands-on with it. Working on the Deck Doctor series, I see a lot of decklists that never get used and, often times, the lists aren't that bad. Usually it's just a little shortsightedness here or lack of congruence that keeps a deck from finding success.


Here is a deck that I took a liking to when I first saw it because it is a control deck very much looking to be even more proactive than Esper Dragons. That said I am not so sure the deck should be looking to be so controlling. Here is what we are working with:

Esper Mentor by Conley Woods
Main Deck
Sideboard
2 Dragonlord Ojutai
4 Monastery Mentor
2 Tasigur, the Golden Fang
Creatures [8]
2 Narset Transcendent
2 Sorin, Solemn Visitor
Planeswalkers [4]
4 Anticipate
2 Bile Blight
3 Hero's Downfall
4 Negate
1 Ojutai's Command
4 Thoughtseize
4 Treasure Cruise
2 Ultimate Price
Spells [24]
4 Caves of Koilos
3 Evolving Wilds
4 Flooded Strand
3 Island (253)
2 Plains (250)
4 Polluted Delta
3 Swamp (256)
1 Urborg, Tomb of Yawgmoth
Lands [24]
Deck Total [60]


2 Bile Blight
3 Duress
2 End Hostilities
1 Erase
3 Foul-Tongue Invocation
2 Glare of Heresy
1 Pharika's Cure
1 Utter End
Sideboard [15]





Click for full deck stats & notes!

What I would like us to do is look at making this deck a little more proactive. What cards or elements can be adjusted so that we care less about what our opponent is doing? We already find ourselves using Monastery Mentor which is a great aggressive weapon out of a control deck, but are we letting it shine to the degree that we should?

If you would like to post an updated deck list that you think improves upon this list and makes it into more of a proactive one, please post it in the comments below! Next week I will be taking a look at some of the best submissions and then discussing my take on how to bring this up to speed.

In the meantime, Grand Prix Vegas is about to happen and I am very much looking forward to it! Hopefully I get to see everyone out there having a blast both at the card tables and away from them. I will be playing in both bounty events as well as the main, so stop by and say hello! Until next week, thanks for reading!

--Conley Woods--




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