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How The Elite Plan To Break Historic

September 08, 2020
Elizabeth Rice

The 2020 Mythic Invitational is only days away. 161 competitors from around the world will be competing for cash, clout, and dominion over the Historic format. The $250,000 prize pool and Top 16 entry into the 2020 Season Grand Finals is worth the effort alone—but every competitor is motivated by the challenge of proving they have the best deck, the best approach, and best insight into the format.

The pressure to do this is even higher as it is Historic's debut competitive tournament and therefore new ground for players to make a name for themselves.

So how do competitors take on this task? Where does one even begin?

Historic has been in an almost constant state of flux since its inception a year ago. Initially overshadowed by the competitive debut of Pioneer earlier this year, players began to pick up the format more fervently in 2020. It's been rapidly evolving ever since.

Amonkhet Remastered, Jumpstart, and the banning of Field of the Dead are the most recent changes that have certainly forced competitors to reconsider and reevaluate their strategies. The constant influx of information can be daunting for many people to find their footing, but regardless, identifying what is powerful is key.

Emma Handy

Well known for her analytical skills from her tenure as an SCG Tour commentator and writer, Rivals League player Emma Handy knows what matters. "The first thing I'm interested in doing in a format like this one is identifying what [angles] people are trying to fight on in the upcoming event," she said. "This mostly does a lot in helping sift through decks that might be good, but aren't doing something that lines up well against the popular decks of the format, or the ways people are combating them."

Jean-Emmanuel Depraz

So what are the cards that these players have their eyes on? "With [Field of the Dead] gone, counterspells, discard spells, and reactive cards in general have become better, which has led me to try and find the best Thoughtseize deck," says Magic Pro League member and 2018 World Magic Cup Champion Jean-Emmanuel Depraz.

Ugin, the Spirit Dragon Ulamog, the Ceaseless Hunger

"The first place I went after the ban was Ramp decks," said Handy. "They're proactive and reasonably resilient to most forms of interaction. Ugin, the Spirit Dragon and Ulamog, the Ceaseless Hunger are some of the best curve-toppers in the history of the game, so exploring that space was exciting to me."

Gabriel Nassif

Hall of Famer and MPL player Gabriel Nassif is well known for gravitating towards control decks. This tournament is no different.

Teferi, Hero of Dominaria Censor

"I've mostly been drawn to White-Blue Control and Teferi, Hero of Dominaria as well as the cycling cards like Censor," Nassif said.

Sebastián Pozzo

Mythic Championship VI Top 8 competitor and Rivals League member Sebastián Pozzo gravitated towards Goblins after the Field of the Dead ban. "I liked playing Field of the Dead decks, but the format is better now: you can actually play with removal in your main deck," Pozzo said. His preferred strategy is using aggressive decks. So cards like Muxus, Goblin Grandee and Thoughtseize have been front and center in his testing.

After deciding what cards and strategies are powerful, the building and testing begins. Players must pick the threads they find most powerful and interesting, then determine if that's their path to victory. Time is of the essence.

MTG Arena has been a game changer for some players in this regard.

It "just lets you get in so many more games than before. Things like the queue system and auto tapper allow for both faster gameplay and faster re-ups than ever before," said Handy. "Another bonus of playtesting on MTG Arena ... is that you can always change your deck from match to match. This leads to me trying out more decks in a short timeframe, making more tweaks as I go, and actually writing off decks faster than I normally would because I'm not priced into playing a full five-match league."

Depraz also describes how Arena has made it easier to put a deck through its paces faster than before. "I have always needed to play lots of games to get a feel for what a deck can do and how it performs, and MTG Arena made it easier to just jam game after game until I reach a certain degree of certainty," he said.

"My process goes like this: find a decklist that looks promising, fix the manabase, then iterate on it until I feel like I can't go any further," Depraz explained. "Then I move on to another deck until I have tried everything or run out of time."

For Nassif, his process hasn't changed: "I usually just pick up a deck that looks fun to me, or build some kind of control deck to attack the meta and start jamming some games."

But at what point do players decide if what they have built is not up to snuff?

"It doesn't take me very long to completely move on from a deck," said Handy. "Generally speaking, the things I'm thinking about whenever I playtest a deck is how many things I need to 'go right' in order to win. The fewer times that a deck needs to get lucky (or, how many times it needs to dodge getting unlucky) the more consistent it is."

Depraz admitted that some weaknesses are too structural to fix. "Sometimes, a deck is just too inconsistent in the face of commonly played interaction, or not powerful enough to compete with the best threats available."

He also specifically avoids decks with unwinnable matchups. "If I feel like I can't beat a deck that is likely to be popular, then I have to find something better," he said. "I hate gambling on pairings... [Y]ou can find a deck that beats pretty much everything if you look hard enough."

Utilizing external feedback similarly helps competitors make crucial adjustments to their builds, whether that be tuning their sideboard or abandoning their chosen strategy altogether. Many competitive players at this level work in teams in order to better use their time and access different play styles and perspectives.

"Most of what I do in terms of feedback is talking to a handful of people about where I am in terms of learning things and seeing if our notes line up," said Handy.

Putting a deck through the paces to determine how it holds up against the predicted metagame takes precious time. But the more accurate a player's prediction of what they're going to face, the closer the trophy will be.

"At this point, Sultai Midrange, [white and blue-based] Control, and Black-Red Sacrifice are the decks I am trying to beat the most," said Depraz.

"The big things I'm expecting are Simic [and] Uro, Titan of Nature's Wrath decks that are built around either Nissa, Who Shakes the World or Teferi, Hero of Dominaria; Goblins; Kor Spiritdancer; and Collected Company/Bolas's Citadel decks." Handy said.

Sometimes the best way to predict the future is by gleaning insight from the past. Evaluating previous high-level tournament results and identifying the successful strategies is one way to determine what decks they will be going up against.

If you were paying attention to Mythic Championship VII last year, the MTG Twitch Rivals event that preceded it was the first major indicator that Jeskai Fires was going to be the deck to beat. It was not a coincidence that players for that Mythic Championship gravitated to what was clearly one of the most powerful decks.

Mythic Championship VII became specifically about identifying the powerful strategy, then deciding if one could tune it to beat the expected mirror—or find a way to completely subvert it. Jund Sacrifice and Simic Flash proved they were up to the task.

For the tournament ahead, players are preparing for a wider field. The fact that this is a tournament of 161 players instead of 68 makes a difference.

"There are over 100 players, and the odds of shooting for a specific target and missing is pretty high," said Handy. "That isn't even getting into the fact that Historic is a wide-open format and that widens the spread of archetypes that people bring to the event." Too narrow preparation could ultimately leave players exposed to decks they failed to consider during testing.

The ultimate test of a player's approach is the tournament itself. While the focus during the tournament is the game play at that moment, how players prepared before they sat down is just as important. Did they make the right call? Will their hours of building, testing, and tuning result in the grand prize? The fact that this tournament is bigger with a wider metagame means claiming that trophy will be even more defining.

Find out who will claim the first Historic trophy at the 2020 Mythic Invitational, broadcasting live September 10-13 on

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