Ask the Pro: June

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Wizards of the Coast welcomes Hall of Famer Raphaël Lévy as the featured player here at "Ask the Pro." A fixture on the Pro Tour for the last eight years, Raphaël is uniquely positioned to answer your questions about the life of a professional Magic player, give a historical perspective on the game and high-level tournament scene, share stories about travelling the world, and talk about the role Magic plays in his life.

Fifth on the lifetime Pro Points list, Raphaël began his Pro Tour career back at Pro Tour-Paris in 1997. He became a regular on the tour starting at the 1998 World Championships. Since then he hasn't missed a Pro Tour, an astounding streak cresting 50 consecutive events. He was recently honored as a member of the Magic Pro Tour Hall of Fame's 2006 class and was inducted at the 2006 World Championships in Paris. He was recently named the 2007 Road Warrior by a vote of readers, earning a spot at the 2007 Magic Invitational in October.

Send your question, along with your name and location, via this email form. Answers will be posted every Tuesday, Thursday, and Saturday.

Note: This feature isn't intended for rules-related questions. For those questions, try our Saturday School archive, the Rules Q&A message board, or visit irc.efnet #mtgjudge.

June 29, 2007

Q: With whom and how do you prepare for Pro Tour-San Diego? (Part II)
- Numerous readers

A: Hi everybody,

Continuing from Thursday's answer, here's the rest of the crew:

Pierre CanaliWilfried RanqueAntoine Ruel
Age: 24
Best or worst accomplishment ... in life: Opening my own restaurant at the age of 19 and still have time for volunteering.
What would you bring to a desert island: A straw. They always seem to manage to stick them into coconuts in cartoons, I want to see if it’s actually possible.
Age: 27
Best or worst accomplishment ... in life: Winning a Team GP... with José Barbero!
What would you bring to a desert island: My old Game Gear with Columns, and loads of batteries
Age: 27
Best or worst accomplishment ... in life: I dumped Alyssa Milano because she was too dumb.
What would you bring to a desert island: My girlfriend, so I don’t have to clean the dishes.
The rigors of poolside testing.

The Pro Tour starts Friday, so wish all of us some luck, and follow us in the coverage!

June 28, 2007

Q: With whom and how do you prepare for Pro Tour-San Diego?
- Numerous readers

A: Hi everybody,

My crew and I arrived early in San Diego and settled in a nice hotel, which offers pool and jacuzzi, to fully enjoy the sun of California. We play between two and three drafts a day, with teams from different levels. Because many players managed to find flights to attend Grand Prix-Montreal last weekend, we are able to fill the draft queue quite easily.

Enjoying the wildlife of San Diego. Wish you were here.

The crew consists of:

Guillaume Wafo-TapaOlivier RuelBastien "KLB" Perez
Age: 26
Best or worst accomplishment ... in life: Never been damaged by "The Rack"
What would you bring to a desert island: A boat
Age: 25
Best or worst accomplishment ... in life: Ran 100m in 9.68 on Olympic Gold - Master System.
What would you bring to a desert island: "Is there a wi-fi connection?"
Age: 20
Best or worst accomplishment ... in life: Bought the most expensive bag of salt... ever
What would you bring to a desert island: Something useful... the Bible!

Check back Friday for more of the crew...

June 26, 2007

Q: Plain and simple, I want to take my game to the next level. The problem is, I live in a small town where the serious Magic population is two: myself and my buddy. Occasionally we can make the hour-long trip to FNM but we are consistently in the top 4 there. It's well known that the best way to get better at the game is to play against people that are better than you. Unfortunately, I have reached the ceiling in my local area. I do play online a bit but I feel like a goldfish trying to swim from America to Japan via the Atlantic. I am planning on attending Grand Prix–San Francisco in August and would like to try to start networking with some better people. What is the best way to go about introducing myself to some of the top players and see if I can take my game to the next level?

A: Hello Michael,

The problem you are having is common among players who would like to improve their game but are stranded due to their geographic situation. You have already started playing on Magic Online and that's a good first step. When you come from nowhere and are totally unknown on the Magic scene, you will have a hard time getting into the circle of top players. If you manage to create friendship with them, you might be able to share tech and work together in the future, but it does not have much to do with Magic, but more with human relationships. You might not get anything if your only goal is to leech on them to get decks... so be careful with the way you introduce yourself.

The easiest way is to create an online community by gathering a certain number of players from your area (or sharing any common point that you've met on forums, or just somewhere before), and start playing together on Magic Online. Find out what their motivations are and communicate as much as you can via private forums. If you're all aiming at becoming better, everyone should be able to improve their game.

June 23, 2007

Q: I’ve just qualified for my first Pro Tour, its San Diego and the format is Two-Headed Giant Draft. My partner and I won’t have much opportunity to practice so do you have any hints on the format? Also, as this is both our first Pro Tour what advice would you give us for the event, like how to play out our turns and communicate with our opponents, that kind of thing. What should we expect event-wise and how to deal with it? Thanks and keep up the good work—might even see you there.
- Dan Bretherton

A: Hello Dan,

And good job on Qualifying!
Two-Headed Giant is a weird format, and giving hints about it is even more complex. Most players have different opinions about it, and unfortunately, most of the conclusions you end up with are the results of playtesting. Catapulting random conclusions here would not help you as the whole process of practicing is the relevant part of the understanding (I hope that’s clear enough!). If that can reassure you, it’s very hard to set up Two-Headed Giant training drafts, and I doubt a lot of teams will be seriously prepared for that tournament. If you can, get to San Diego a few days prior the PT with other qualified teams you know from your country and practice there.

Playing for the first time on the Pro Tour is a strange feeling for most players. They don’t really know what to expect from their opponents, behaviour-wise. Just keep in mind that it’s a high-level competition, and that in case you mess up, you won’t be able to take things back, and that a rule infraction will cost you more than in local tournaments.

Just as in any other competition, if you play fair and nice, you won’t have any problems, and will enjoy the moment. Your first Pro Tour may not be a successful one, but it will give you a better idea of what the high-level competition is so you know for the next time.

If I can give one piece of advice to newcomers to 2HG, it is not to trust your other head too much. Most mistakes come from the fact that one head wants to do something and the other head thinks that the first one thought it through, so it agrees. But the fact is that the first head was just asking if it was the right play, and the second didn’t really think about it. So the team ends up making a mistake. Think about it, it will save you a few games I’m sure!

June 21, 2007

Q: Hello Raphael, this is Manuel from Spain. As you know, it’s about time to Regionals. Here in Spain they will be about the end of July. The thing is that Time Spiral block has staple decks in the format, but I would like to build up something rogue. I know that in order to be truly competitive, I must try my creation against the deck to beat. Is there any other process or advice we can follow when trying to prepare rogue for a tournament? Should we aim for a mid-range strategy?

Thanks a lot for your help!

A: Hola Manuel,

You pretty much understood the essence of playtesting: take a deck, battle against the metagame, and find out if it’s good enough.

Opting for a rogue deck will depend on the format you expect. If, for example, you expect 40 percent of one deck in a tournament, you might want to build a deck able to win more than 60-65 percent of the games against that deck, and that would have decent chances against the rest of the field. I’ll give you an example: At Worlds 2004 in San Francisco, Day Three was Mirrodin Block Constructed, and Affinity was the most-played deck. I decided to play a deck with a very high chance to beat it, a red-green deck with loads of artifact removal main deck (such as Tel-Jilad Justice, Electrostatic Bolt) with a land destruction sub-theme, with Creeping Molds and Molten Rains to fight the second-most popular deck, Tooth and Nail. It performed quite well, as I knew exactly what the metagame would be like.

That strategy only works when there are very few very popular decks, and that you can build a deck that beat them both, or have a very high chance to win against one, and decent chances against the other one.

It’s not the same story in the current Standard environment, where the most popular deck will not represent more than 15 or 20 percent of the decks played, and that you can’t rely on beating them only. In fact, I don’t think there’s a line to follow to take the field by surprise, especially when the format has been played for months already. There have been so many tournaments in that format that pretty much all the rogue strategies had been used and the successful ones can already be found online.

As for building a brand new deck that you can call rogue if you want, start by finding a concept you’ll want to follow, a card you’ll want to build a deck around. When you finally build a deck on your own that works in a given environment, you can consider that you’ve achieved something great.

June 19, 2007

Q: Let’s say you’re at a Pro Tour or Grand Prix Constructed event. You’ve tested the format pretty well and feel you have a good deck in general and for the metagame. Then you encounter someone you’ve never played before, playing an unexpected deck you’ve barely or never seen/heard of before and didn’t test against.

Are there any particular ways you go about figuring out the right plays in this unexpected matchup and how to sideboard correctly against it?

Do you have any experiences getting "tunnel vision" about the metagame where you have tested extensively against some decks then encounter one unexpected that confuses you and causes problems?
- Josh Liller

A: Hello Josh,

It’s very rare to play against a deck you’ve never seen or heard of when you’ve studied a format well enough. The information goes too fast nowadays, and it’s very hard for a player or a team to come up with something no one will know about. That’s the goal of every playtest team, to manage to find a deck, surprising the whole field.

The reason why this is so hard is that as wide as Magic can be, the strategies to win are still limited: beat with creatures, combo your opponent out, settle control and win in the long run. Generally, most of the sideboard cards will aim at fighting every strategy better.

So unless you haven’t studied the format well enough, you shouldn’t be surprised in Game 1. You should be able to find out after the first couple of turns what to expect. Where problems do show up when you haven’t seen the deck before is during sideboard. The originality of decks never seen before is that they can have surprise sideboards to change their strategies—for example, turn a combo deck into a creature deck like Max Bracht’s Top 8 deck from Honolulu 2006 or a combo deck into a control deck like Kai Budde’s winner deck from PT–New Orleans 2001. That type of deck would totally turn post-sideboard games into their favor, catching their opponents off-guard.

In serious playtest sessions, players usually bring a few of their own decks, decks they made up to try them against the expected field. With enough time, you should cover most of the possibilities. Some of them are dropped from your group, but may have found some success in others. So in a way, you will have seen most of the decks, and will not be surprised if you face them in the main event.

June 16, 2007

Q: How often do you make play mistakes over the course of a tournament? I've seen people claim that the pros make 1-2 mistakes over the course of a tournament, is that accurate?
- Simon Cameron, Ottawa, Canada

A: Hello Simon,

It depends on what you call play mistakes. If you mean sub-optimal plays, then I'm pretty sure it's a lot more than 1-2 over the course of a tournament. Playing perfect Magic is a lot harder than people think and only very few players manage to do that over a whole tournament.

As for myself, I can tell you that on average, I make one crucial mistake per tournament, a mistake that usually costs me a game. And if you ask around to other pros, they will probably answer about the same thing. Then of course, they may not see what they did wrong in a game, and won't identify that if the loss was because of a wrong play by them. In general, pros are lot more aware of their mistakes when they make some and when they say they messed up once in a tournament, it's usually true.

June 14, 2007

Q: It seems to me that in tourneys, almost everyone is the same. Same decks, same attitude. They want to win, and they'll do it at almost any cost. I've never met a nice person, one who would try to help or offer any advice. The only thing I've encountered is arrogance and clones.

I see no point in a 100 players having maybe nine deck types between them, and I don't see why everyone there is so rude. Is that really necessary? I think not.

For heaven's sake...I was in a Standard tourney and some 23-year-old had the gall to Castigate and then try to Extirpate that same card! It wasn't a mistake either, because I was new, and that was my first tournament and he actually went through with it. That really scarred me. How could someone take a game so seriously that he would cheat against someone who was new to the game?

I just want to know how to go about tournaments. Yes, yes, make the best deck and win. That is not advice. I want to know what attitude to have, how to talk to people, etc.
- Erik

A: Hello Erik,

What I've witnessed in all the tournaments I've played and watched is that the behaviour of players is very different depending on where they are and who their opponents are. The kind of situation you are describing is typical of a PTQ or Regionals. Players either come to tournaments to win or to have fun. In the case of a PTQ or Regionals, having fun is not exactly the priority for most of them. So that's why you will encounter mostly the same decks that have been successful around the world prior the tournament.

They are around everywhere—players who think they are the "nut high" (understand "very awesome"). But they are still playing in PTQs and Regionals, meaning that they don't really live up to what they pretend to be. They are usually a bit better than average, and want to let everyone know about it. That sometimes leads them to act arrogant and rude to newer and less-experienced players.

But you won't find it in every event you attend. I've also seen many PTQs where everyone was friendly and a good sport. The people you meet may be kids or young adults who need to feel strong somewhere and PTQs are where they feel they have the best chance to show off. It's not so much about the game Magic, it's more a matter of education and humility. If you feel that you have something to learn from them, explain that they may be better than you at Magic, but they still have a long way to go before they can become respected players—and not only from the other kids they bully. They may understand at some point that they gain nothing from their arrogance but disdain. They usually learn what respect is when they qualify for the Pro Tour. They realise they have A LOT to learn, and that no one gets away with this kind of behaviour toward their peers, regardless their play level.

If you see something that goes against the rules, it's your duty to call a judge. No matter how eager anyone is to win, no one is supposed to get away with cheating, but that's another story.

Don't let yourself bothered by some players' behaviours. They are just overwhelmed by their cockiness. Play your game, and teach them a lesson if you can.

June 12, 2007

Q: How often do pros bail out on their deck right before a Pro Tour or Grand Prix? I have been struggling over which deck to play for Regionals, but eventually decided upon the deck that I felt most comfortable with and knew very well. What merits a last-minute switch other than the discovery of a completely broken deck?
- Simon Thwaits

A: Hi Simon,

Sometimes, you work on a deck for weeks. You tune it, you work on everything that you can work on to make your deck as shiny as it can possibly be. When you have the right information about the format and about everyone else's plans, and you have the deck that is perfectly adapted to the format, you feel comfortable with it, and you like playing it, there's usually no reason to switch.

However, this doesn't happen all the time, and there are cases where you'll want to switch decks at the last minute. One of the reasons for that is that you will find out key information that you were missing when you were playtesting about what people are playing right before the tournament. Let's say for example that you have been planning to play White Weenie against an unprepared field, and have been tuning your version so it can beat most of the decks in the format, and then you find out just before the tournament that the dealers are sold out of Sulfur might want to reconsider your choice.

The other reason is that you find a deck you like more than yours, or a deck that looks more appealing to you. That can take the form of someone convincing you that his deck is awesome and that you should give it a try.

There are pros who would never switch decks at the last minute. They trust their first intuition and will stick to the deck they've been working on. They want to make sure that if they fail or do badly, it's going to be their fault and know how to draw conclusions. Some others, like me personally, trust their last-minute intuition. They never know what they are going to play until a few days before the tournament. I don't trust in my ability to reach perfection from scrap when I'm working on a deck, and prefer to wait until I have as much information as possible to decide which deck I'm going to play, and how I want to tune it. The main problem with that strategy is that you will often play a sub-optimal version of a deck, as you would have needed hours of playtesting to reach the optimal version. On the other hand, you will have a more adapted deck to the field (in theory).

June 9, 2007

Q: It is sometimes not so easy to understand exactly what is happening in the games described in the event coverage. It would be interesting to have access to the same information players have when they make their decisions, in particular in Limited where match coverage isn't so readable from a strategic point of view. Don't you think Magic requires a standard notation to formalize reported games? At least to remember historical plays and to ease long-term game analysis?
-Fred B.

A: Hi Fred!

When you read the coverage of an event like a Grand Prix or Pro Tour, if it's not the filmed part of Pro Tour Sundays, it's hard to learn much from it. I believe it's more oriented to the fan base rooting for their favorite players than as a resource for people eager to learn.

There are just too many things to report in a game for the reader to clearly know what's going. I don't know if you've tried to read a judge's coverage of a game where he writes down everything that happens, but it's quite hard to figure out what's going on even though you have all the information, because in that case, you have too much. I'm not even mentioning how boring it is to read.

The only way I can think of to report the games is to play on a program like Magic Online—which many players wouldn't like, including me—or play on a special table that is able to scan the cards you draw (like on poker shows, when players show their cards to the camera), the cards you play, and report them to a program able to save how the game went exactly, so you could basically watch a real game on the coverage as you would watch a game replay on Magic Online.

Both solutions are not likely to be used, due to unrealistic resources that would have to be used. The special table I talked about right above would probably cost a lot to both develop and create, but it could be a good idea. The saved game would be available in the coverage, and the reporter's notes and write-up would make more sense because of the additional context. It'd be great if Wizards could build one of them as a test for Pro Tour feature matches. I'm quite sure we would learn a lot from games saved that way, but I don't think it will happen anytime soon.

By the way, about this special table, I just made it up, so don't ask Wizards about it as they probably never heard of it until now!

June 7, 2007

Q: How do you react to or play against a kid that just started playing Magic, and you are facing him in the first round of a Grand Prix? Do you treat him like any other opponent, or do you help him playing, take a look at his 100-card deck afterwards, tell him to cut down to 60? And if he doesn't know what kind of an opponent he is up against, do you tell him you are a pro?
-With kind regards, Stijn Lamers

A: It is very rare to face a clueless kid in a Grand Prix when you start playing on Round 4 (due to byes). If they made it to the fourth round with 9 points, they're probably playing a proper deck, or at least something good enough.

What you mention usually happens at prereleases. I never say I'm a pro, and play normally. I never play for my opponent, as young as he may be, but tell him at the end of the match what he could have done better. I like to help others, but your goal in a Magic game is to win, and you should treat all your opponents the same way—may they be very young or pros.

In the first rounds of prereleases, when I see my opponent playing suboptimal cards—not to say bad cards—and that we've played a good game or that he seemed nice or friendly, I often ask him if I can take a look at his deck, go through his deck with him and tell him how he could have built his deck. Players usually take notes of the advice they are given and appreciate it.

June 5, 2007

Q: What??? Is that your answer??? Go look on the Internet for a deck and that way you win??? I'm sorry, but I can't believe that a so-called pro delivers that kind of cheap advice. "No competitive player can work without the Internet"—are you serious?? I guess that if I made my own deck based in my own ideas it cant possibly work, right??? Well that says a lot of how you manage to win so many tournaments, you just copied decks!!! Wow I'm so impressed!!!

It's for people like you that great cards get banned, you abuse a card and start cloning decks, it's stupid that in a Pro Tour all you can find is three different decks, when the possibilities are so much larger. Congratulations you are a great example for players who do not want to think for themselves but just to play as they are told to.

In short, if you are so blind, that does not mean you have to go poking people in the eyes.

A: I feel sorry if you didn't understand my previous answer, and I'm going to elaborate it more now.

My job here is not to help one player in particular, but all the readers. And as I said last time, I receive a lot of questions like the one I answered.

There's a point you are missing when I'm talking about Internet decks. Most of them have been playtested for countless hours and won tournaments, against other decks that have been playtested countless hours. Your friend's decks may have been playtested countless hours too, against your other friends' decks. And maybe it ended up being the best you've ever seen. But it's on a very small scale (you and your friends). Internet decks have been played worldwide.

But the thing is, your deck can be very good against your friends, but if it doesn't beat what everyone else is playing (tuned decks picked up from the Internet), you have no chance to move up a level. When you start playtesting against popular decks, you'll realize where you stand with your own builds. If you manage to have good results, then you might consider to have hit on something really good.

If players on the Pro Tour or in other high-level tournaments often play the same decks, it's not because they have no skills and couldn't build a deck on their own, it's because they play the decks that they thought were best.

June 1, 2007

Q: I currently play Magic and cannot decide on an effective deck because many people where I play use full sliver decks. What would be effective against this? I was thinking of a Plague Sliver and a Dormant Sliver, but the odds of getting them in the average deck is small. Thanks for the help.

A: Hello Nick,

I receive a lot of requests like this one; players who feel lost because they can't beat one of their friend's decks. Understand that it's hard to answer to most of you, as you don't give me enough information. For example, in this case, what's in your friend's sliver deck? Which color is he using?

I'm not asking you to give me all the details because I won't be able to solve all your problems, and because the following answer should help you all to shake your local Magic scene.

I'm talking to you, Nick, and everyone else who can't beat the deck your friend has been using forever. If you turn to me, that means you want to go up a level, go from the friendly Magic circle to a more competitive atmosphere. The only piece of advice I can give you is to try out a deck you find online. Frank Karsten's column, for example, gives you a review of what currently works in Standard. If your friends aren't playing Standard, or don't know what the heck that means, then you should spread the word and tell them what it is so you can all turn to tournaments together. That said, I doubt your friend's sliver deck can beat a well-tuned Dragonstorm, Project X, or Dralnu deck. The same probably goes for any of your friends' *killer decks*.

If they say you cheated because you got your deck from the Internet... well you did cheat a little already by asking me; but today, no competitive player can work without the Internet, so it's probably time for you to move on!

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