Jeremiah is the best player I have ever faced - as far as I know, anyway. I know he’s the best player I have faced on a semi-regular basis. He always plays a solid, proven deck (i.e., “netdeck”), and he pretty much never makes play mistakes. He has a saying that’s become famous (or infamous, depending on one’s point of view) among our local gaming community. He even has his famous slogan embroidered on a shirt:
Jeremiah believes that, to win the most matches, one should play a deck that has shown results. “Netdecks,” as their called (usually as a derogatory term by people who don’t like them), are those deck lists people find on the Internet that have had success in larger tournaments. Some netdecks are those created by people renowned for their deckbuilding skills, such as Patrick Chapin (whose nickname, interestingly, is the Innovator).*
Some players believe “netdecking” is almost like cheating. This belief is based on the idea that a player should build “his own deck” instead of copying others. Such an idea is fine for casual play (I guess), as long as each player in one’s gaming group agrees to it. There are problems, however, with the notion of “playing one’s own deck.” What if a person comes up with a deck idea that resembles one of those diabolic netdecks?
On my own, sitting on my living room floor by myself with a pile of cards, I came up with what’s now known as the “Pickles combo”; namely, Vesuvan Shapeshifter + Brine Elemental. Clayton can confirm this. I put that annoying little trick into a mono-blue deck and had been playing it for almost two weeks before I saw that someone else had also thought of it and wrote about it on Magic’s official website. It was an original idea of mine. It was also an original idea of some guy who writes for Magic’s site. He gets the credit. I don’t care. I’m pretty sure any trick or combo a person thinks of has probably already been thought of by somebody else. My point is, in a world where “netdecks” are on the same level of evil as murder, drunk driving and smashing cute puppies in the neck with a sledgehammer, I would have been accused of running a netdeck - even though I didn’t get my deck from the Internet.
My thought, and I’ve said this before, is that people should play what they want to play. The netdeck haters only hate netdecks when netdecks beat whatever janky homebrew they decided to run. They’re a bunch of whiny little wimps. I like playing against netdecks because then I have a clue of what I’m facing when I play against one. My sideboard is generally crafted to take on the decks I think my opponents will be playing. I usually build my sideboard to take on netdecks.
Jeremiah chooses to play (gasp!) netdecks. The “innovation” that leads to match loss (according to Jeremiah) is when a player puts together a rogue build or attempts to tweak or fine-tune a netdeck by making changes to the original list. Jeremiah has been known to play a netdeck card-for-card, even when he doesn’t think certain cards in the list are worth running in the deck.
I remember a conversation at the game store a few months back. This guy - let’s call him Zebrahead because I can’t remember who was actually there that day - asked Jeremiah, “So you never change any cards in a deck list you find online?” Jeremiah replied to Zebrahead, “I do once in a while. All I’m saying is that I’d rather learn to play a good deck flawlessly than try to make that deck better.”
I had no response. The statement floored me.
I took first place with my Customized Five Color Control deck, a mono-green Treefolk deck, a home brew Rock deck, and have made Top 4 with even stranger deck builds. Apparently I’m not an advocate of “Innovation equals match loss.”
Or am I?
Here’s the shocking truth: I think Jeremiah is right. I think, in general, if you want to win more, then find a solid winning deck, learn how to play it well, and bring that deck to FNM. Don’t try something new. Don’t spend time trying to improve the deck that just took first at States. If winning is your primary goal, then leave the fun but janky Treefolk deck at home. You may love that Merfolk Mill deck you built that you keep beating your little sister with, but if your first love is winning games, don’t bring it.
I know. You love it. Back when we were drafting triple Lorwyn I pissed off a lot of people for weeks with my Merfolk Milling Machine starring Drowner of Secrets. I understand. It’s fun. And in Limited, it was house. I’ve tried making that tech Constructed-worthy. It’s not. If your goal is actually winning - maybe even making Top 4 at FNM - then leave it at home, kid.
“Innovation equals match loss” really means, “Attempted innovation by most players isn’t really innovation, but rather untested and uncertain changes to a deck that probably don’t make the deck any better and probably make the deck worse.” Most players aren’t true innovators. As arrogant as Jeremiah can appear (and he admits he is, and honestly it’s an endearing quality - for him, anyway), there is a great deal of humility as well: by his actions Jeremiah admits that, while he is an outstanding player, he is not an innovator. There’s a certain wisdom in that. He leaves the deck-building to the pros, the guys who spend way more time in the lab than any of us; the guys for whom Magic isn’t just a way to spend a Friday evening, but a job (hence the label “pro”).
“Okay, Bud. You agree with Jeremiah, yet you bring these ‘customized’ decks to FNM?”
The decks I bring to FNM are usually a tested archetype that I’ve changed in some way. I use the word “customized” because I’m not so much innovating (trying to improve the deck) as I am making it more comfortable for me to play. Sometimes I’ll look at a deck list online and simply can’t figure out why this card or that card made it in. If I don’t know why a card is in the deck, then I don’t really know how to use that card in the context of that deck. So I add cards that I think are a good fit, and if I put them in there, I know why they’re there, and thus I know how I’m supposed to use them.
Maybe your gun is better. But at least I know how to use mine.
The 5CC build I brought to FNM is a lot different than the build I brought before. Is the new build better? I have no idea. I just know I understand the new build better, and therefore I can pilot the deck more efficiently.
My goal, then, is to learn to play a good deck flawlessly. To do that, I have to understand the deck completely. For me, that usually requires making a few changes. I guess if I were a better player I wouldn’t have to make any changes.
Okay… That’s about as much pseudo-humility as I can manage for one article.
Here’s the bottom line: I put together a rogue build or customize a netdeck because I like to experiment with different ideas. I like to think of myself as someone who challenges the status quo, who’s part of a class of people to whom “Innovation equals match loss” doesn’t apply.
Guess that makes me more arrogant than Jeremiah.
I’m skeptical by nature. I find myself questioning and challenging the conventional wisdom of everything (goes with having an education in philosophy). Magic is no exception. Just because the pros say X doesn’t mean X is necessarily true. Now, I consider what they have to say, because there’s a reason why they’re the pros. Whenever Jeremiah says something about the game, I pay attention. These guys are worth listening to. That doesn’t mean they’re always right.
Sometimes I’ll play a deck just for the challenge. Why did I bring my Treefolk deck to FNM that one night? Because I wanted to at least make Top 4 with it. I wanted to experience moments like when I beat a Reveillark player and he shouted, “I’m not supposed to lose to this deck!”
Sometimes my motivation behind playing a deck - like Goblins, Treefolk, or Zombies - is rooted in the same kind of emotion that causes me to root for my hometown (i.e., Chicago) sports teams. They may not be the best, but they’re my favorites. And sometimes they need to be represented.
I agree with Jeremiah: if you want to win the most games, then learn to play a good deck flawlessly rather than try to make that deck better. Grab a winning deck list off the Internet and learn it, because most likely you’re not a true innovator. But here’s the rub: sometimes winning isn’t my primary goal. Yes, I try to win every game I play. But sometimes I don’t want to just win; I want to win with Treefolk. Sometimes I want to win with some off-the-wall jank. I want to see whether my latest experiment works. It’s the challenge that excites me. It’s the thrill of winning with the underdog cards that the “serious players” dismiss as garbage.
This can be dangerous, because the whole thing can blow up in your face. If you’re ever at Capital City Games in Springfield, IL, ask Dave about a homebrew of mine that became known as my “Mono-Blue Alzheimer’s” deck. It’s the only time in my life that I lost every round at FNM. When you take a risk, sometimes it doesn’t work out, and innovation does in fact equal match loss.