It's not easy being average; I'm reminded of this every Pro Tour. I mean, I'm an average Magic player (hence why I do coverage). I'm an average coverage writer (hence why I do coverage poorly). I'm surrounded by people who are incredibly smart and incredibly talented. And that's just the rest of the coverage team. When you look around the halls of the Pro Tour, you see some of the brightest people I will meet in my life, people who understand things (and I mean more than just Magic things) on a level I will never even approach. I'm not like them. I'm just decidedly average.
But sometimes, average is something special in and of itself.
I listen. It's one of the few things I think I do well. Around Magic events, there is no shortage of things to listen to. There are people everywhere, discussing what they're playing, what they've been playing against, where they can get some lunch, trying to figure out if they've got enough time to run outside really fast before the next round starts. Listening is key to my understanding of Magic. Hundreds of fragments of thoughts and opinions overlap to build a fairly rich picture of the state of things, and I notice the patterns in what people are saying.
And what many people had been saying coming into this event is that Golgari wasn't that great a deck. It was simply average.
One person who has left average far behind him is Brad Nelson. Nelson's incredible success has long been attributed to the incredible amount of practicing and preparation he does for events. One of the original Magic Online superstars, FFFreak would spend hours a day playing match after match, simply putting in as much time, if not more, than anyone else in the world. Combined with a natural talent and understanding of Magic, Nelson burst onto the scene in a way that few players have before or since.
Not normally outspoken, Nelson made a comment to Ben Stark that was incredibly out of character. Stark is generally accepted as one of the best Limited minds in Magic, yet Nelson calmly told Stark that he believed that he knew more about the Return to Ravnica Booster Draft format than he did.
Yet, with over 50 drafts under his belt, Nelson does have an incredible wealth of information to draw on. Just like listening, the information you accrue over 100+ rounds of play layers over itself to provide a more complete picture of the format. From this information, Nelson has come to the conclusion that what most people think of as average is really exemplary.
"Most people are willing to just dismiss the Golgari deck. They look at it and see all of these average creatures and these average spells and see an average deck," he told me.
Brad Nelson is a big supporter of the Golgari archetype, and he believes that it's one of the better guilds you can draft!
What Nelson sees is an all-star in the format, and one that, because of its average nature, is easier to get than most. Even those player that do decide to foray into the sewers of Ravnica are thinking about the role of Golgari all wrong, according to Nelson. That means that they are overvaluing cards that you don't care about as much, leaving the cards that you are seeking still in the pack.
"What a lot of players don't understand is that Golgari isn't an aggressive deck. It's an aggressive resource deck."
To me, this was a bunch of mumbo jumbo. I mean, I think of decks with Treetop Villages when I think of "aggressive resources", but Nelson explained what he meant.
"You want to fill your deck with these pump spells and cheap creatures, but you aren't looking to attack your opponent to death in the first few turns of the game like a Rakdos deck does. They are aggressive. You are trying to trade off card for card with your opponent, whittle away their resources. You want to aggressively deplete your opponent's resources. Then you can win the game."
The guild that often wants the Golgari creatures is, unsurprisingly, Golgari. The removal and pump spells, however, are loved by multiple guilds. You need to prioritize these over your creatures in order to keep up with the Golgari game plan.
Considering Golgari's role in the framework of Ravnica, this makes sense. The guild itself thrives on death, using it to make themselves stronger. The deck works the exact same way. You try to trade off your Drudge Beetles and Sluiceway Scorpions and keep your opponent from having nice things. Then, when you've managed the game to the point when neither of you really has anything left, you've created a situation where the scavenge cards in your graveyard make everything you draw into a threat that can end the game. You whittle them down and then break the game open. But doing this requires some unorthodox thinking.
"The single most important thing that I can tell you is that if you are drafting Golgari and you think you are taking Giant Growth too early, you aren't taking it early enough."
Pump spells really make the Golgari deck go round. They allow you to kill off your opponents creatures in the early game, as well as forcing trades between your worse creatures and the better ones of your opponents in the mid and late game.
"Ideally you want around eight spells in your deck, five or so pump spells and like three removal spells. And you need to take them early. You want to try to grab Giant Growth and Stab Wound whenever you see them. I'd take a Giant Growth first pick and not think twice about it if I knew I was Golgari. As far as removal goes, you don't really want Launch Party. You'll often have to play it because you don't really have anything else. But I wouldn't be happy about it. The goal is to trade one for one with opponents, and Launch Party is the exact opposite of that. But sometimes you don't have a choice, unlike when you're picking up creatures for this deck. For them, you'll have your pick. They'll always be there."
The part of this philosophy that leads to the view of Golgari as simply "average" is the deck's stance on creatures. They will be there later because none of the other decks really value them. The Selesnya decks don't want your green creatures, because they'd much rather be playing Centaur tokens. The Rakdos decks don't want your Daggerdrome Imps because they are just worse than the other two-drops in the deck. You have a very limited number of barriers to you getting the creatures you want. The spells, however, these will be snapped up like hotcakes. Even decks that aren't black will splash for Stab Wound.
Golgari can often safely pick up the creatures it wants later in a draft, as the other guilds have other needs to fill their creature line-up.
"Basically this is what you want: you want to simply play a straightforward deck, nothing cute, trade where you can, and win in the late game. That being said there are some issues this deck has that need to be shored up during the draft. First off, this deck can't really deal with fliers. To that end, you should aggressively take Aerial Predation. This card is perfect for this deck, as it provides a nice, clean-cut way to effectively trade for an opponent's creature, which is just what Golgari wants. Honestly, the guys with reach aren't that great in the deck. I'd be more likely to take the Towering Indrik than a Trestle Troll, at least more likely to play one maindeck. I'd probably end up leaving the Troll in the sideboard for the Azorius decks. You don't want to force a stalemate with the decks, you want to kill their creatures, and Troll is bad at that. At least the Indrik has a power to speak of."
On the topic of creatures, Daggerdrome Imp is the way this deck beats the Selesnya decks. After all, they have the same problems as this deck does, a relative inability to deal with fliers, especially large ones. The lifelink really lets you nullify their attacks, while the evasion gives you a way to actually kill them. You have to be careful attacking early when they leave mana up, since you don't want to lose either your Imp or a pump spell to Eyes in the Skies. Once you get to about six mana or so, you can start to scavenge and turn the Imp into a game winner. You have a bit more trouble against the Azorius decks since their removal is cheap and efficient by comparison to the other decks. While drafting, keep an eye out for Imps, but you should really have a couple of Stonefare Crocodiles in your pile before you start grabbing Imps. You need your beaters first."
Daggerdome Imp and scavenge will often be how you win games, especially against guilds like Selesnya.
So you want to take dorks like Daggerdrome Imp and Drudge Beetle and Sluiceway Scorpion, relatively unexciting cards. You want to avoid creatures with reach and instead rely on a single shot spell to deal with fliers. You want to take pump spells more aggressively than removal (except Stab Wound, because it is awesome). You want to keep your mana curve relatively low, but you aren't playing an aggressive beatdown deck. Honestly, the people who say that this deck looks average are wrong.
This deck looks less than average. But it plays like an all-star.
"Players just seem to underestimate the power of this deck. They're drafting bomb-laden decks with eighteen or nineteen lands. I'm drafting a deck with an average mana cost of three and playing sixteen lands. They're dropping their six-drop bombs and I'm killing them with Giant Growth or Aerial Predation. This deck does seem bad when you first look at it, but it's so consistent. And constantly trading for whatever you can just has this massive disrupting effect on whatever your opponent's deck is trying to do. And all of those trades help you. You don't care if your creatures die. In the end, you're going to win."
Nelson speaks, and I listen. Here is a deck I can really get behind. Average creatures and average spells in an average deck. Everyone overlooks it. They dismiss it. Why be average when you can be spectacular? Honestly, I don't blame them. Golgari isn't splashy like Izzet. It isn't ruthlessly efficient like Rakdos. It isn't as obviously powerful as Selesnya. It isn't as...structured...as Azorius. It's just a bunch of dorks milling about.
But get them together and these "average" dorks turn into something amazing, something impossible to ignore. So the next time your spectacular deck gets trounced by a "bad Golgari deck," maybe you'll understand that Golgari is actually quite good.