June 10, 2015

The Truth With Ben Stark

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In the aftermath of the greatest Grand Prix weekend in the history, I decided to stay in Las Vegas for a couple of weeks. So far, I haven't regretted this decision. I usually come down to the desert for a few weeks every summer for various gaming activities, and the fact that there were so many Magic players hanging around made the decision easy.

Many late-night drafts have fired, and I've been immersed in the culture of the Pro Tour player. This is a culture I'm familiar with, as my duties on the coverage team puts me smack in the middle of this crazy group of people quite often. As it turns out, I can relate to them in ways I can't with most other people.

One of the people I've spent the most time with is Pro Tour Hall of Famer Ben Stark. Ben and I have roomed together before, and decided to room together for this trip as well. We have a lot in common. We both have similar lives, we both travel a lot, we have similar professions, and our hobbies line up almost perfectly. We've played basketball a bunch of times, drafted some, and ate a lot. You get the idea. Oh and Ben made the Top 8 of the GP.

Hall of Fame Pro Ben Stark

Ben and I tend to share similar theories when it comes to Limited as well. He's considered one of the best Booster Draft players in the world. He's at the top of my short list, that's for sure.

But Ben doesn't do much in the way of content. He'll occasionally write an article, or do a draft video, but not much else. I decided, while eating lunch with him today and discussing burning Limited topics, that it would be a good idea to pick his brain a little for the column this week.

I've also got some Modern Masters 2015 Edition tech that I have discovered (with Ben's help) that I'll share with you after the interview.

Without further ado, a rare chat with Ben Stark.


What is the most important concept that Limited players should strive to understand?

Not being too fancy. Most games are won or lost by hitting your mana curve, by having removal or a trick to clear that one creature out of the way. Not by having some kind of crazy three-card combo or over-the-top finish or something like that.


What about the difference between cards that affect the board versus cards that don't?

Yeah, that's a good baseline for Limited. Anything that affects the board is almost always going to be good enough for Limited, assuming it's efficient enough. Cards that do not are very rarely good or playable.


What qualities do you look for in a card that doesn't affect the board to bring it to playable status?

If it draws a lot of cards, because that can translate to wins if you have a bunch of other cards that do affect the board. For cards that just damage a player, for example, it has to be a lot of damage. Lava Axe has almost never been a good card in Limited. Even the most aggressive decks usually only play one.

All of these combo-ish cards, these fancy sorceries feel like they are more designed for Constructed, and are rarely playable in Limited.


What is the biggest mistake that you see players make in Booster Draft?

Along the same lines as the other question, it's drafting too many expensive cards. Most games are won by hitting your curve, but people see these cards that cost five, six, seven mana. They do a lot, these cards, so people want to draft them. But if you draft them aggressively, you can end up with too many of them and lose games where you don't hit your land drops or draw too many expensive spells in the early game.

The most important thing is hitting your curve. Drafting the right number of twos, threes, fours, and being able to cast two-drop into three-drop into four-drop most games.


Do you have a guideline for what the right numbers are for this curve? Is it format dependent?

It is format dependent. A good rule of thumb is to have at least four two-drops and about the same number of three-drops. This way you are very likely to have done something by turn three, and somewhat likely to have done something by turn two or three.

Different types of decks want different curves. For example, the more pump spells you have, the more two-drops you want to cast. This way, as long as you have a two-drop creature out pressuring the opponent, they have to block eventually. When they do, you can use your pump spell to get rid of their three-, four-, or even five-mana creature.

Along the same lines, if you have ten two-mana 2/2 creatures, but zero pump spells or removal, all your opponent has to do is cast a single 2/3 and you can never attack them.

In general, the more pump spells you have, the more your deck wants two-drops over five-drops.

How your removal lines up is really important too. If you have a lot of cheap removal, then you want to have more five-drops and higher. If your deck has more expensive removal, you want cheaper, more aggressive creatures. Reach of Shadows goes better with two-drops, where Wild Slash goes better with five-drops.


How does that play out?

Well, you use your cheap removal spell to stay alive against their early threats, which means you don't have to cast anything on turn two. Since you are still alive in the later part of the game, you get to cast five-drops and higher. If your hand is Reach of Shadows and a five-drop, you'll often just get run over by your opponent hitting their curve.

On the other hand, if you have a deck full of two-drops, you'll need a way to clear away that 3/3 or bigger creature so you can keep attacking. The more expensive removal spells do this, which allows you to keep attacking.

To be clear, I wouldn't cut either of these cards from my deck in either case. The difference is in how you prioritize them. If I have a deck with seven two-mana creatures, Reach of Shadows is going to go up a lot in value for me, where Wild Slash would go down a lot in value.

If I have a bunch of late-game rares, or expensive cards that don't affect the board, like Enhanced Awareness, then Wild Slash will go up in value a lot, where Reach of Shadows will go down.


What was your biggest level-up moment for Limited?

That's a tough one. We always played a lot of Limited. I remember this Magic shop I played at when I was in Middle School where we used to do Mirage-Visions-Weatherlight drafts all night. Even before a Constructed PTQ, we'd just do so many drafts.

I know that my first Draft decks probably weren't good, but I got better over time. I'd love to give you an answer for this, but it was a process for me that took place over the long term. I just feel like we just drafted, and drafted, and drafted, and drafted forever. That's just what we did.


I'm teaching a friend of mine to draft. He's still picking up the basics, and he's having a hard time with red in the current Dragons of Tarkir Draft format. He recognizes that it's a good color, but feels like he can't win with it for some reason. Should he allow himself to play fewer red cards for this reason, or should he just push on and play red anyway?

He should probably move past the barrier, but the way to do that is to seek help. He may not be evaluating the cards correctly. A lot of the time, the cards go up and down in value based on the other cards in the format and the synergies available.

For example, I wasn't drafting green well in Khans of Tarkir Draft until I had a long conversation with William Jensen and then I understood what I wasn't prioritizing correctly. That format was all about the ferocious mechanic, so cards like Hooting Mandrills and Alpine Grizzly—which don't look great on the surface—perform better than cards that look better, like Woolly Loxodon. So that's what I was doing wrong. The problem wasn't green, it was me, basically.

That's probably your friend's problem with red here. Just because you aren't good with a color, doesn't mean you abandon the color. You fix why you aren't good with a color. You reach out to your friends who you respect and you talk to them about the color, the commons, the cards; and you try to learn what your mistake is and what you aren't prioritizing correctly.


Are you of the "stay open" or "stick to your plan" draft strategy?

Definitely stay open. I think one of the worst things you can do is have a plan in Booster Draft. You don't know what the people around you will be drafting. I look at knowledge of the format as weapons in your arsenal. You don't know what is going to be available to you in a given draft, so you need to have a lot of weapons available to you. Even if there is one weapon that is more powerful than the rest, it may not be available to you in that draft, so you may be more successful with the second- or third-most powerful weapon.

If you are of the mindset that you always want to draft the most powerful option, what happens when two people to your right are drafting it as well? You'll end up with a train wreck. And then you go 0-3 because you have no deck.

I think you should try to understand everything about the format you can, and not worry about one specific deck, even if you think it's the best.


When preparing for an event, how off the radar are you willing to go with your Draft decks?

It depends on how much time I have, but I do think there is value to going into the fringe strategies. Even if it's only correct to play that deck one in twenty times, that one time may be the Top 8 of a Grand Prix or at the Pro Tour. If you don't understand how to draft it, you'll miss that opportunity.

If I had infinite time, I'd explore all the strategies.


What is your favorite Draft format?

Champions of Kamigawa block. Or the original Modern Masters.


What is your favorite deck to draft in Modern Masters 2015 Edition?

Green-black with tokens and sacrifice effects. And Algae Gharial.


Thanks to Ben for taking the time to chat with me in-between his busy schedule of basketball games, Chipotle, and drafting.


Modern Masters 2015 Edition: The Truth

I have to admit, I planted one of those questions just for the column. It was the last one, and I knew the answer already because Ben and I have drafted this deck and talked about it a fair bit already.

The Truth. That's what we call Algae Gharial in our hotel room. The Truth is one of the best uncommons in the set, and the lynchpin for this strategy.

The main synergy is with Eldrazi Spawn tokens and the fact that you can sacrifice them at any time to pump your Truth. Also the fact that there is no deathtouch in the format means that your shrouded Truth is surviving almost every game.

I've played more Bone Splinters and Tukatongue Thallids than I ever thought I would. You also get the good token makers and access to other colors of removal since you are a base-green deck.

I don't want to go too deep here on the deck, but suffice it to say that first picking The Truth will reap rewards. The Truth will set you free. They can't handle The Truth.

You get it.

Until next week!

@Marshall_LR



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