The Progression of a Format

patrickhobanI firmly believe that deckbuilding is the most important aspect in being successful in this game. Sure, there are plenty of things like making the correct play or having your reads be spot on, but take a minute to think about how far those things will really get you. If you’ve got Lonefire, Soul Charge, and Mount Sylvania you may not know all the possibilities and that if you had not previously practiced this combination, there is probably something better that you could have done. But how much is that really going to matter? A rather disheartening reality is that whatever you do with that combination of cards will probably be good enough that it won’t matter.

I say this not to downplay learning the intricacies of the game as you will unquestionably win more games by making the right play than making a different play, but rather to show that playing perfectly does not always translate to winning the tournament. Think of it this way; perfect play, deckbuilding, making reads, knowing rulings, mind games, and so on all are pieces of a pie. If your pie is full, you’ve given yourself the absolute best chances at winning the tournament. If you make a less than perfect play or have an inferior deck, part of your pie disappears and you lessen your chance of winning.


So how exactly is this information useful?  When your preparing for an event, you’re going to be limited in the amount of preparation you can do. Do you spend an equal amount of time preparing in each area? Consider the fact that all pieces of the pie may not be equal in size. If learning your deck’s ins and outs will win you more games than learning how to trick your opponent into thinking what you want them to think, then why would you not focus on the largest piece of the pie to give yourself the best chance?

soulchargeWhile I feel that most people would argue that perfect play makes up the largest piece of the pie, I feel like play is severely limited by things like the Lonefire, Soul Charge, Sylvania scenario I explained. Sometimes making the right play isn’t enough, especially if you’re the one sitting across that play.


What if you were the first person to realize the potential that Sylvans had like Jeff and Hin Ting Lee at the Circuit in Milwaukee? Your chances of winning the tournament seem like they would go way up by having the best deck in the room, especially when we’re talking the alternative of knowing which Hand is better to set if you had entered with the most played deck.


Today I’d like to make a case for deckbuilding making up the largest slice of the pie by using my own experiences over the last year and map out a progression of any given format so that you most maximize your results.


A little over a year ago I won the NAWCQ playing Dragon Rulers. Everyone was playing Dragon Rulers. In fact, I played eleven mirror matches throughout the tournament. If everyone is playing the same deck, it seems like it’s a difficult point to argue that deckbuilding was more important than anything else in my success at that event, but let’s look a little further. Coming into that event, Sacred Sword of Seven Stars was seen as a one of. Some daring revolutionaries added a second copy to their deck and saw moderate success by making it to top cut. Now consider that ¾ North American players that qualified with Dragon Rulers, including myself, maxed out on a full three copies of the card, something practically unheard of before that weekend. We all realized how far ahead that card put you and the edge that it gave you and decided that we wanted it at all points of the game. I took the notion of gaining an edge through deckbuilding one step further by main decking Vanity’s Emptiness to give myself an advantage in the mirror. It was no coincidence that of those eleven mirror matches, I lost zero.


vanity's emptinessFast forward a few weeks and we’re at the World Championship where I completely crashed and burned. Why? Well I no longer had the best deck in the room. I wasn’t playing 3 Swords against their 1 Sword and main decked Emptiness to no real traps, I was playing 3 Swords against 3 Swords and main decked Emptiness against main decked Emptiness.


The next event was YCS Toronto. The baby Dragons had just been banned, but their counterparts were free to dominate the game at three. It was also the first time that Icarus Attack and Black Whirlwind were at three together since 2009 and Blackwings had a lot of hype. The reality? People had no idea how to make Dragons effectively work and we saw inconsistent build after inconsistent build. People tried to mix everything from Lightsworn to Plants, all of which would prove to be incredibly subpar in comparison to the two Dragon Ruler variants that dominated that format. Blackwings were still incredibly underwhelming compared to Dragons when played the correct way.


I bring a Dragunity deck with a Dragon Ruler engine, Reckless Greeds, and yes, three Sacred Swords of Seven Stars to the YCS in Toronto. The deck was the definition of speed and consistency and I made it all the way to Top 4 before losing in time in an otherwise unloseable game. It’s safe to say that the Dragunity deck was leagues ahead of the other decks present at that event.


A few weeks after Toronto, the Circuit Series premiered in Texas. I again brought the Dragunity deck and ended up winning the event, this time playing against slightly better, but still subpar Dragon decks for most of my rounds.


The Dragon Ruler deck continued to slowly improve with each passing event, but I still think Dragunity was just the better deck at that time. And what happened? I topped the next two events after Toronto and Texas as well.


trigonThen all of a sudden something happened; Trigon. Billy Brake and Robby Boyajian discovered Dragon’s ability to abuse Trigon by making double Dracossack first turn by Cycling through Dragon Ravines. I underestimated the impact that Trigon would have and still played Dragunity at the next event and guess what? I didn’t top.


Trigon had effectively made Dragon Rulers better than Dragunity Rulers. I no longer had the best deck in the room when I entered with Dragunity. This realization came only two weeks before the 125th YCS in Italy. I made an attempt to switch to the better version of the deck and played a more standard build of Dragon Rulers, but wasn’t able to learn enough about the deck with such a short amount of time remaining and I didn’t top. This is when Samuel Pedigo won with his Geargia deck maining every floodgate known to man in an attempt to keep Dragons from being able to play.


The last event of the format came in December over Christmas break. During this break, I had extra time to devote learning the ins and outs of the deck. I realized several inconsistencies in the standard build such as the unnecessary amount of tuners played and realized how important a loaded graveyard was for winning a mirror match. As a result, I cut tuners and added Dragon Shrines when everyone else was playing just three Ravine. The extra Dragons gave me a huge advantage and it resulted in a top.


January brought a new Forbidden and Limited list with it, this time hitting the Dragon Rulers to one. Fire Fist became seen as the deck to beat early on. I attempted to build the better deck, this time in the form of Hieratics with Hieratic Seal of Ashes to fuel Dragon Rulers, but ultimately the deck was just not as good as the other decks in the format.


YCS Atlanta was only a few weeks away and I was discontent with all the choices I had tried out. Just a couple days before the event a crazy snowstorm hit Georgia and my friends and I couldn’t leave our houses for two days. During these two days, I spent some time thinking about his Mermail deck. That’s when I realized that Mermails thrived in complex game states with lots of cards and not simplified game states. I made a last minute switch to a Mermail deck that minimized the Atlanteans and instead focused on Gunde through using multiple Turge. As it turns out, the deck was absolutely insane and I went undefeated in the constructed part of the tournament, only losing two games. This was the first event with draft in top cut. I was inexperienced at drafting and lost out in Top 16.


The Circuit came to Charlotte the following weekend. By this time, I had completely acknowledged the importance of having the best deck. I didn’t show my deck to anyone in between the two tournaments and played it again the following weekend. The results wound up the same as they were in Atlanta with the deck being significantly more powerful than all the other decks played and it resulted in my third win.


Mermail AbysslindeMermails caught on after that event and became the deck to beat and once again I found myself without any edge over my competition. With no change in the format and no new cards to be released, there was nowhere else to go in the format. I reluctantly played an incredibly similar deck in both Berlin and Las Vegas, and didn’t top either with no edge in deckbuilding. I tried to regain my edge over the field by revisiting Hieratics for Chicago, but again they were just underwhelming.


Thankfully a banlist change brought potential for innovation, but the format proved to be incredibly similar. It was just a watered down version of the previous format with Gunde limited and Wolfbark limited, but Water and Fire were still the perceived top decks. The discovery of a new combo in Abysshilde gave new hope for creating a better deck, but it only went so far. If it were a better build, it was only slightly better, not enough to dominate like the Dragunity deck. I missed the top cut in Mexico, but made it at the YCS in Las Vegas.


Before we had even left Vegas, Konami gave us exactly what we needed to create another over the top deck; Soul Charge. I immediately thought that whatever the best deck was was the deck that could most effectively use the maximum number of that card. My friend Desmond and I spent the next two weeks before Richmond exploring this idea and found ourselves back to Dragon Rulers. They had the ability to dig for Soul Charge while simultaneously fueling it to make it strong at all points of the game. We got our edge back and both kept going until we had to play in top cut. I won that match and went on to take a fourth championship in under a year.


A new pack gave us the Artifact monsters, which took YCS Philadelphia by storm. I didn’t fully understand the implications they brought with them. School was finishing up for the semester and I didn’t have as much time to devote to learning the matchup or creating a better deck and didn’t top Philly or DC. School ended right after DC concluded and I decided that Dragons still had the highest ceiling and I thought they were the best deck, despite the popularity of Artifacts and the rising popularity of Geargia because of their matchup against Artifacts.


At this point I noticed a trend that had been occurring all along. In the beginning of a new format, the decks would be all over the place and considerably weaker than the later builds. Let’s go back to the September format with Dragunity and Dragons for examples. The early builds of Dragons with Plants or Lightsworn were incredibly lackluster and it was significantly more diverse with everything from Blackwings to Mermails seeing play.


royal decreeNext the format becomes defined and more concentrated. In that format it was narrowed to just Dragons and Dragunity. The third phase is anti-meta where other decks are built to counter that specific meta. This can be seen in Sam’s floodgate Geargia deck from when he won the YCS in Italy. The final stage of the game is the meta decks adapting to deal with the anti-meta cards. In this format, the last event was won by a Dragon Ruler deck main decking Royal Decree.


Let me give a second example with Tele-DAD format. The format started out with Tele-DAD, Lightsworn, and GBs all considered viable. GBs even managed to win the first event of the format. Then the format became really concentrated to the point where roughly 13 players in the every Top 16 were playing Tele-DAD. The anti-meta phase of the format occurred with the introduction of Royal Oppression. The final stage of the format occurred by decreasing the deck’s reliance on cards effected by Oppression such as Jerry Wang cutting Emergency Teleport down to one at the final event of the format.


If you look at Baby Dragon format and Mermail format, I bet you can paint a similar picture. Formats all tend to begin diverse, concentrate to just the best decks, develop anti-meta to beat the best decks, and then have the best decks readapt to the anti-meta that is present in the format.


This format began with Dragons, Bujin, Artifacts, Mermails, and Gears. It became concentrated around Gears and Artifacts (though I’d argue they weren’t the best deck). It was time to implement the anti-meta stage of the format. I found that to come in the form of Royal Decree in Dragons to counter the heavy trap lineups of the most played decks. Milwaukee was the next event and this strategy proved successful and resulted in me making top 8. The next event in Philadelphia deviated due to the release of the Lightsworn structure deck, but cutting the inconsistent cards lead to a top there as well.


The final event of the format was the NAWCQ. It was time to make a return to the best deck as it is adapted for the anti-meta strategies of the format. Jeff suggested that I might like Sylvans and my testing revealed them to be a better version of Dragon Rulers. I minimized the number of Sylvans to optimize the draws and played them during the final stage of this format, fully equipped to take on the heavy trap anti-meta strategies that Gears and Artifacts employed and made it to Top 16.


Notice that all these formats are playing out the same:

  1. Diversified decks
  2. Meta becomes concentrated around fewer decks
  3. Anti-Meta strategies see success against the concentrated meta
  4. The meta adjusts and the best deck reestablishes itself once it adapts to the Anti-Meta


This idea that formats progress the same way every time can serve as a guide for deciding what to play at any given point of the format. Recognize that you might see success with a wider range of decks in the first stage than you would in the fourth stage. Identify when the meta is shifting to a more concentrated spread of decks and then develop an anti-meta strategy to beat it.


An edge over your competition in deckbuilding is the most effective way to achieve consistent success. Figure out which of the four stages of a format the meta is in and be the first person to move to the next stage. As you can see my successes over this past year were when I was able to do exactly that and my failures were when I couldn’t. While two formats are never the same, the way they play out is almost mathematical. Use the stages of a format as a formula to figure out what’s the answer to any format’s puzzle. We’re just beginning to exit the first stage of this format, don’t get wrapped up trying to anti-meta Shaddolls and Stellarknights when the format isn’t diverse enough for that to see much success. Wait for the right point in the format and you’ll see success. Until next time, play hard or go home!

Patrick Hoban

Patrick Hoban

Patrick Hoban

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