Episode 2, Series 6 of Doctor Who features one of my favorite television scenes.
Here's the setup. The newly discovered villains of the time are The Silence, bulbous-headed aliens with a pretty potent trick: as soon as you look away from one, you forget that you ever saw it. As you might imagine, that makes dealing with a Silent fairly tricky.
Our heroes aren't armed with much, but they do have two items at their disposal.
The first is a little voice message recorder embedded in each person's palm. That way, they can quickly record messages to themselves while looking at a Silent. It blinks red after a message has been left.
The second is, simply, a sharpie. The good guys decide that, whenever they see a Silent, they should quickly make a tick mark on their bodies so they, as well as anybody who sees them later, knows they've seen one.
Okay. Got that down? Good. Because one of our heroes goes to investigate a house, and then this scene happens:
Go ahead and watch it. I'll wait. Take your time.
If you're confused about what you just saw or didn't click the link for whatever reason, here's the gist: the door slams behind Amy Pond and she runs back and grabs the doorknob to try and get out of the room. She looks down at her hand and notices her hand recorder is blinking—it's a message to herself, saying to get out.
She runs to the window, and tries to open it to no avail—then looks at her hands, which are suddenly covered in tick marks. Lightning strikes and she catches a reflection of herself in the mirror: now there are tick marks on her face. The camera cuts back to her actual face in front of the window and it is suggested that it has even more tick marks than from the lightning flash scene just a moment ago.
Suddenly, it's clear that she's locked in a room with a Silent and she (nor you) has no idea how much time has actually elapsed. She may have been locked in there for hours at this point. Then she looks up, sees a number of Silence, quivers a bunch and...
The door creaks open. She looks down and just walks out, completely oblivious to everything that just happened.
Which deck does this relate to? Well, let's take a look:
Gavin Verhey's Faeries
Lorwyn Block Constructed
Ah, Lorwyn Block Constructed.
It was a high-powered Block format, full of aggressive tribal decks, control decks that easily tapped into all five colors of mana, a blisteringly strong mono-red deck, but—most of all—Faeries.
This format was where the notorious menace that is Faeries would get its not-so-humble beginnings.
The thing is, Faeries wasn't just a strong deck. It was the deck. It would win PTQ after PTQ after PTQ, and most Top 8s would feature at least half Faeries decks. It was absurd how powerful the deck was in the format; good Faeries players could pick apart the aggressive and the control decks alike. It was clear to someone just casually looking at the format that if you wanted to win a PTQ, you should get good at playing Faeries.
And yet, a lot of people just opted not to play Faeries.
I was one of them. Bent on not playing Faeries for some reason that I might as well have forgotten, I played in event after event with non-Faeries decks. And every single time, without fail, I would get crushed by Faeries. And I wasn't the only person telling this story: when my friends lost, they would also usually come up to me and tell me that they lost to Faeries.
But yet, Faeries had this weird effect. When you were in the actual match—when you were looking at the enemy across from you—you couldn't help but wonder why you would play anything else. But as soon as the match was over, as soon as you left the tournament, it was easy to fall back on, "Well, it isn't really that unbeatable."
As soon as you looked away, you just...forgot.
It's an important lesson: if something is clearly incredibly strong in the format and you want to win, don't talk yourself into playing something else unless you really feel like that's legitimately a better choice, and for the right reasons.
As for me? Well, I went to one PTQ on a Saturday and played Merfolk, a deck I had constructed precisely because it smashed Faeries. I believed the matchup was ridiculously in my favor—I couldn't really lose against them. I was an 80% favorite.
...so, after promptly losing two of my first three matches to Faeries, I dropped and thought about it the rest of the tournament, while my friends played. I had misled myself. I should have just been playing Faeries.
Two weeks later, I won a PTQ with Faeries and was on my way to Pro Tour Berlin.
It's that time of the year again!
Two weeks ago, I put up two polls: one with ten Magic-related topics and the other with ten non-Magic-related topics. My mission: to take the two highest-voted topics and create a single article that interweaves them both!
See what won (with a caveat) this poll.
Now, before going further, I have an important tweak to these results.
I took the top five voted topics on each list from last year's vote and used them again, except, as I mentioned last week, I meant to exclude topics that I had later gone on to write about after last year's article. Only after the poll went live did I remember that "Fighting the Metagame" was already something I covered in-depth in an article I wrote earlier this year!
Since the final results on the Magic side were so close and I already said everything I wanted to say on that topic a few months ago, I'm making the executive decision to go with the next topic down. If fighting the metagame is something you're interested in, please go check out this article from January.
All right. Still with me? Perfect.
Let's get into it. Doctor Who and my favorite decks of all time, eh? (For reference, I'm going to focus on the 2005 revival of Doctor Who, since that's what most people will know—so when I say things like "Series 1," yes, I know technically it's Series 27.)
Should be interesting!
A couple years later, suddenly I was in the exact same position as Katie. (Minus the awesome theater.)
In an unexpected turn of events, I had become the Doctor Who guru in people's minds. It started around the time I started doing a bit of cosplay and talking about it a little, and suddenly I had just become the go-to guy. I began to receive several tweets a month asking for my thoughts on recent episodes; predictions; and, most commonly, where somebody should start if they were interested.
And, just like had been done for me, I pointed them toward "Blink." Eventually, I even wrote an entire Doctor Who primer for these curious folk. (Which you can find by clicking here, if you're interested in learning more about the show.)
That evolution reminds me of this one:
Ben Hayes's G.I. Jace
Pro Tour San Juan, Undefeated
For years after playing Blue-Green Madness, I had always been fascinated with green-blue tempo decks. You never forget your first, I suppose. I had been honing my skills on doing just that for ages. And it finally culminated in the week before Pro Tour San Juan, as I built up this green-blue deck that quickly showed results beyond anything else I had tried in the format.
Very few people at the tournament had decks like this one—and many teams who did boasted great results. (The other undefeated Standard player was Noah Swartz, with a similar mono-green version.) It was explosive and could tempo out control decks—our control matchup had something like a 90% win rate—and play a more controlling game against the fast ones. The only real bad matchups were Mono-Red and Boros, and as long as we didn't hit those we were good.
The night before the Pro Tour, I met up with Ben Hayes (now a Magic developer), who I barely even knew. He didn't have any deck he liked and wondered if I had a good one I could share.
I hesitated a little. I didn't really know him outside of a few interactions, and although he seemed trustworthy, I really couldn't let this deck leak—especially since a couple other people staying in our beach house were playing it. The universe hovered in on me, waiting for the reply that would shape time.
And then I remembered the friend who told me to play GU Madness all of those years ago. The person whose generous information kept me in the game. It was time to pay the debt forward.
So I told him.
Naturally, my teammates and I got paired against a bunch of Red and Boros decks and lost, and Ben played against ten control decks and went 10–0. (His draft record kept him just outside of Top 8.) Even though I had lost, it was still awesome watching Ben go on that incredible run.
Doctor Who has many great scenes, but something it does well, time and time again, is build up to individual moments that give you a strong reaction. Whether it's a scene that makes you laugh, cry, or make you feel smart at a reference, the writers are good at creating these tiny moments. And in a show about time travel, one of the great ways to do this is to play with what you already know.
And then there are the scenes that give you tingles down your spine.
In one particularly incredible scene, The Doctor time travels back to spend time with Vincent Van Gogh. And then this happens:
You've been waiting for the moment the entire episode—for them to somehow work a painting reference in there. But this brief scene from Series 5, Episode 10, which calmly takes one of Van Gogh's most recognizable pieces and shows how his mind came up with it, tells the story while also playing with what the viewing audience already knows about Van Gogh. It takes your knowledge and, rather than just throw new thing after new thing at you, puts it to good use.
How does this apply to a deck? Well, here's one example:
Gavin Verhey's Sizzetron
In the weeks leading up to this Regionals event, I had been working on this deck. For hours on end each day, I'd test it, tweak it slightly, and then test more. I could recall the sideboarding to this deck as easily as the alphabet. It was something I knew.
Then, disaster struck.
The few days before Regionals, I couldn't win at all. I would literally play sets of ten games against one deck and go 2–8 in matchups that were supposed to be the other way around.
It was completely mysterious what happened. My testing partners also started to do poorly with the deck, and they jumped onto other archetypes. And so, right before the event, I was faced with a decision: audible to a different deck that would be better but I didn't know as well, or play the one that I knew inside and out but was going to be weaker.
I decided to stick to what I had put so much work into. To play with what I already knew.
It worked out. I ended up making Top 4 of Regionals and made it to Nationals—one of my first major events ever.
The lesson here? Play what you know! It's tempting to jump onto a new deck at the last minute—but don't let some anomalous skewed data push you into a mistake. Playing a deck that you know inside and out is going to be better than switching to a slightly better deck that you don't know at all. Play with what you know.
I just didn't get it.
I had recently been brought into a new Creative Writing club in college (cleverly named "Write Away") via my friend Morgan. We met weekly and wrote together based on spontaneous topics the group would bring. And when I say we wrote together, what I really mean is we "wrote" together.
It's sort of like a "book club." I mean, how many books have actually been read, lifetime, for a book club? Usually, there's allegedly some book to read for it, and that's what you tell all of your friends you're busy doing when you secretly don't want to leave the house, but then when you all meet up it turns out everybody just read one chapter and, since nobody finished the book, instead it's time to break out the wine!
Ahem. In any case, Write Away's version of wine was British television. And each week, I would come in and my fellow writers would be talking about the latest episode of Doctor Who.
Once I finally figured out the show wasn't actually a medical drama about owls, I immediately leapt to give it a try. A sci-fi show about time travel? How could I go wrong!?
So I watched the first episode of the 2005 revival. And...I didn't like it at all.
The acting was mediocre. The special effects were bad. The plot was barely interesting. The entire episode seemed to have a red filter on it. And, worst of all, it was 45 minutes long. Normally I would have pressed onward, but the previews for the next episode didn't seem much better. Why would I ever keep watching this?
So, I set it aside for the time being. My writing friends would just keep talking about it, and I would take it all in passively while not really understanding their amusement.
Well, clearly that changed at some point—but that's a story for another time.
There's a very specific deck this reminds me of:
Luis Scott-Vargas's Grapeshot Elves
Pro Tour Berlin Champion
The thing that cuts the most about this deck is not that I was qualified for the Pro Tour and got beat by it, but that I was qualified for the Pro Tour, had the Elves decklist, and chose not to play it.
Elves was under the radar going into the Pro Tour, but I had my ear to the floor and found a primitive version of it a few weeks before the tournament. I playtested it for a couple hours and decided it wasn't any good. It was cute, to be sure, but there were too many matchups where it wasn't working. Rather than tweak it to try and make it better, instead I just left it there.
When I got to the Pro Tour several days early, everybody was playtesting Elves. But, because of my initial impression, I remained convinced it wasn't any good. I would playtest against it and lose, and yet still remain steadfast in my original analysis.
And then, of course, the rest is history. I missed Day Two by one match with my Black-Green Death Cloud deck (in retrospect: ew, why did I play that!?) and Elves put up one of the most dominant tournament finishes of all time, sending six players into the Top 8.
That definitely...could have gone better for me. But, as if to cosmically atone for my elf-eschewing ways, I started playing the deck shortly thereafter and quickly learned its ins and outs. Since then, I played Elves in PTQs, GPs, and other qualifier events, as well as being a huge proponent for the deck by writing articles about it and tuning it.
Ever since this experience and the Makeshift Mannequin experience, I always make sure to try decks out, and then if they aren't working, tune them further. (Which is probably partially responsible for why I write this column!) Sometimes, the kernel for a great idea is hidden within an oddly constructed shell.
And that wraps up this week's article! It was a true pleasure combining two of my favorite things together. Topical blends are always such crazy fun to write! Thanks for reading.
If you have any thoughts on this article, Doctor Who, or otherwise, please, feel free to let me know! Post in the forums, tweet me, or ask me a question on Tumblr, and I'll be sure to take a look.
There's no deck-building challenge for two weeks from now, since it will be a preview week...
...although I will say, if you're up for a challenge and also a Doctor Who fan, I certainly still have something for you! You see, in every single ReConstructed column, I have hidden at least one Doctor Who reference. Yes, that's right—every single article has one. How about this: if you manage to find them all, send me the list and, if you're the first, I'll let everybody know you won the challenge. Have fun!
I'll be back next week with my first Magic2015 preview article! I can't wait. Talk with you then!
Part of why I've always been a sucker for time travel is the notion that you can go and see the future. And not just who gets elected president in a few years, but what the scope of the entire universe offers in millions of years. What happens to Earth? Is there other sentient life out there? Do humans ever get flying cars, or is it still just some cruel unfulfilled dream?
So when I eventually tuned into Episode 2 and it featured the literal end of the world, the show had my attention. The Doctor's adventures in time and space go everywhere—even to the end of time itself—and that really sparks my imaginative wonder. The fact that you can write an episode in any place, with any premise, at any time, is so exciting. And, I'm sure, daunting. (Steven Moffat, current show runner, once said something akin to, "You know you've filmed an episode of Doctor Who when you can go to your list of big stories you wanted to write one day and cross it off, saying, 'Well, I somehow managed to fit that into 40 minutes.'")
This kind of pure imagination is what brings me back to the show time and time again. Most episodes introduce new characters, new worlds, new stories—and then resolve them in a single sitting. Doing that without making everything feel rushed is incredible.
All of this brings one deck in particular to light:
Caspian Scott-Vargas's Cog-Go
2044 Magic Supreme World Championships, Second Place
Conjurer of the Lake
Hamaz, Blind Tinkerer
Weaponize the Crows
22 other spells
In Caspian's first Pro Tour Top 8, he took this deck all the way to the finals. Most players had totally counted cog decks out as some kind of gimmick from the last block—but Caspian caused the entire Magic world to take another look with his innovative Cog-Go deck.
He used the cog package, of course, but his big, well, innovation, was Conjurer of the Lakes. By eschewing nonbasic lands for Islands to turn on Conjurer, Caspian was able to take full advantage of his cogs—and not in a way his opponents were ready for. Each and every cog turned into a major threat.
The lesson here is not to keep everything in mind as new cards enter. When a lot of decks are built, especially ones based around synergy, the best builds are discovered early on. And then, after rotation happens and it loses some pieces, people tend to look again for what can be replaced. But when the second and third sets in the block come out, players tend to not look back at the synergy-based decks they had previously eschewed as unplayable.
Just because something loses a piece doesn't mean there isn't something new for you to try later on. When a new set comes out, even a smaller set, it's important to keep in mind all of the previous decks that the new cards could become a part of.
I'll never forget the second time I watched Doctor Who.
The first time, I actually didn't enjoy it so much—remind me to tell that story at some other time period. But the second time changed everything.
It was the perfect setup. A friend of mine from Write Away lived in what was practically a mansion. Besides being one of the most gorgeously decorated houses I had ever seen, it had something which, ever since, I have dreamed about for my eventual home: a theater.
And I'm not just talking what many of you might imagine a theater as, with an open wall, a projector, and a couple comfy couches. No—one of the downstairs rooms was an entire mock theater, complete with twenty-odd theater chairs that had drink holders, a gargantuan screen that was projected on, surround sound, and—I kid you not—a popcorn machine.
So, I was over there and my friend Katie had promised to indoctrinate (har har) me to Doctor Who properly. Skeptical, I obliged.
So she put on "Blink" that night, and my life forever changed.
If you've never seen a lick of Doctor Who, "Blink" is the episode to start with. First of all, it's just a generally incredible piece of television. And second, despite being from Series 3, it requires absolutely no prior knowledge of the show. The titular character barely even shows up. (Seriously, if you haven't seen it before, it's worth watching even if you have no interest in ever watching more of Doctor Who—go stream it on Netflix or something right now!) This makes it a great barometer: if you like this episode, you'll probably like the rest of the show.
And I lovedthis episode.
I found myself not only enjoying it in the moment, but thinking about it later that evening and in the days to come. It lingered with me like dewdrops sitting on the morning leaves. Or cholesterol.
And, well...a couple years later, I'm here writing an article about it.
This reminds me of a specific deck that's near and dear to my heart:
Ken Ho's Blue-Green Madness
Very Old Standard
In 2002, I was an impressionable twelve-year-old at a major turning point.
I played Magic in the sense that, you know, I literally set rectangles of cardboard down onto the table. But that was about the extent of it. I certainly didn't know much about what I was doing. And, while I enjoyed the act of literally setting rectangles of cardboard onto tables, I wasn't truly enchanted by the game yet. I had briefly tried my hand at the JSS (Junior Super Series, a now-defunct tournament series that awarded scholarship money) and my pile of cardboard rectangles got crushed pretty hard by my opponent's actual deck.
Enter: Blue-Green Madness.
A friend of mine told me about this mystical "Blue-Green Madness" deck, handing down the story in the same way that kids might pass gossip about a teacher around school. With his cupped hand cloaking his whispers into my ear, I heard the tales of Wild Mongrel and his good pal Wurmy, and about how they, along with a cast of half-human rapscallions, rode through the night delivering wondrous presents to good little children and justice to atogs.
In an instant, I was sold.
I went out and slowly traded for all of the cards I would need for my Madness deck. And, after a few weeks, I finally had something: I had my deck, something I had scraped together, and was ready to play with. I played that deck for months. Without having a deck of my own that could actually win and I was excited about, who knows if I would have kept playing Magic at all?
I had always thought it was an odd thing to do.
Not that I thought the people who did it were weird or anything, but I just didn't get it. Why would you do it? After all those hours slaving away, what was the upside? It had zero appeal to me.
I knew plenty of people who cosplayed, of course. I'd hear them talking about it before conventions—or, at the very least, hear about how they couldn't make an event because they were busy finishing their costume up for a major show.
Years of going to conventions and I still didn't get it. Of course, like so many things, it stayed that way until I actually tried.
It started off as an innocent Halloween costume. I loved the character of the Tenth Doctor, and so I began to assemble an accurate version of his wardrobe, piece by piece, in time. And then, I had so much fun at Halloween that, with Emerald City Comic-Con on the horizon, I figured I'd give it a shot.
And that's when everything changed.
I wasn't really sure what to expect, so I planned to only wear my outfit on the Saturday of the convention—and it was so much fun that I wore it again the next day.
What I had never anticipated was the tremendous community and immediate connection that cosplay provides you with. Not only are most people in the cosplay community awesome, full of advice, and willing to help you out, but being in costume also basically serves as a gigantic glowing beacon to anybody who likes the same thing that you do to come up and talk with you about it.
I have met so many incredible people at conventions who I would have never met otherwise if my outfit hadn't provided them the open door to come say hi. I've flown across the country to visit close friends who I only met because they walked up to me and introduced themselves. I've even got a couple cool opportunities from it, like being part of a BBC America commercial or being asked by people in Seattle to show up to their events in costume.
It's not unlike the Magic community, actually. It's similarly hard to wrap your head around if you're on the outside—but once you're a part of it, it's difficult to imagine a universe where you don't talk with people around the world about a game on a daily basis.
I've since gone on to love wearing costumes of all kinds—if you follow the Magic: The Gathering Facebook page or follow me on Twitter, you may have seen me as Jace before—but I still love rocking The Doctor every now and then.
There's one deck in particular that my opinion also similarly turned around on:
Jonathon Loucks's Makeshift Mannequin
This deck originated from the crazy mind of now-Wizard Jon Loucks when preparing for the Lorwyn State Championships. He had me put up a very rough draft on our team's message board, and it looked...rather out there. This decklist as-is already may look a little odd, and Jon's original version didn't even have Makeshift Mannequin (favoring Dread Return) and was using Mystical Teachings with all kinds of odd targets.
A lot of the team passed over this deck, but Chris Mascioli saw a lot of potential and started testing it. He came up with the Makeshift Mannequin innovation, and really started putting more focus on the deck and drawing attention to it. Like the editors who rejected the first Harry Potter book, I would have completely passed over it if Chris hadn't kept talking about how good it was doing for him.
There are only two or three times in my life I can really claim the feeling of sitting down for a tournament and knowing I had a deck so far ahead of what anybody else was doing. This is not only one of those times, but also the time where I felt like I was the most ahead of what other people were doing.
For reference, we played this deck at States, a low-stakes (but high pride) local tournament. A few weeks later, there were two in the Top 8 of a Grand Prix. A few weeks after that, it made the Top 8 of the World Championships. While, granted, we were missing a few pieces —the lack of Cryptic Commands is grimace-inducing— being so far ahead of the curve felt great.
This was the start of me realizing it was important to test every idea and tune it. No matter how odd it looked, there could be something good in there. Of course, it certainly wouldn't be the last time I made that mistake...
When Gavin Verhey was eleven, he wanted a job making Magic cards. Ten years later, his dream was realized as his combined success as a professional player, deck builder, and writer brought him into Wizards R&D during 2011. He's been writing Magic articles since 2005 and has no plans to stop.