Learning from Elites: Shouta

Shouta Yasooka’s name inspires fear, respect, and the following associations throughout the worldwide Magic community : 1. Control Decks. 2. Playing insanely quickly. 3. Brilliant technical play. 4. Making balloon animals for opponents after losses. Okay, so the last one is a lie, but hopefully I have you hooked now. While it’s easy to find someone with a dissenting opinion on almost any topic, everyone seems to agree that Shouta is a stone cold master of the game, particularly control. At any given tournament, it’s a safe bet that he’s playing a control deck. It’s possible he’s countered more cards than I’ve cast. When you play against Shouta, there’s no doubt who’s in control.

There are very few instances in professional settings where competitions truly seem unfair. Usain Bolt on the track. Greg Maddux on the mound. Ruth-Bader Ginsburg in a courtroom. Shouta playing mono-red?

The 2017 World Magic Cup featured many of the best players in the world – none of whom had a real chance to beat Shouta, playing for Team Japan, in the games I saw. How disheartening it must be to play control against the world’s best control player. How do you beat someone who knows exactly what you’re trying to do? Worse, how do you beat someone who probably plays your own deck better than you do?

If you wanted to, you could start playing the same archetype (e.g. mono-fire) decks in every Eternal and MTG constructed format for the rest of your life. You could literally only cast Fire cards and become one of the most knowledgeable Fire mages in the world. Watching Shouta, the blue-based control master, dismantle his opponents with mono-red made it obvious to me just how incorrect that would be from a competitive standpoint.

Honest Report Cards

My tendency to shy away from aggressive decks in draft has become a bit of a narrative. While it’s true that I don’t draft many aggro decks, proactive decks were always my weapon of choice in constructed Magic tournaments. Killer Robots (Affinity) helped me top 8 the Maine State Magic Championship in a format I hated (modern). Turning creatures sideways isn’t foreign to me.

The motivation for mentioning this is to provide context. I’ll often refer to piloting aggro decks as a gap or flaw in my game. What I want to emphasize is that I’m quite comfortable attacking my opponents. Piloting proactive decks has led to decent tournament results – and yet I consider drafting/playing aggressive decks a competitive disadvantage when it comes to draft.

If you’ve been playing CCGs for a while, you’re probably average-above average in most or all aspects of Eternal gameplay. But if you received an Eternal Report Card, you wouldn’t receive A’s in all categories. No one would. My Eternal Report Card wouldn’t have “F”s in the subjects of Drafting & Playing aggro decks. I’d probably be somewhere in the C+ range. For reference, I’d probably give myself a B+ or A- for Drafting & Playing Control decks in draft.

If your goal is to become an excellent drafter, you have to be honest with yourself about which areas of your game need work. I can draft average aggro decks and beat new players with them all day long. I struggle to draft above-average aggro decks that can beat experienced players consistently. That’s a serious problem if you want to play competitively. What if Fire is the open color again in my 2021 Draft Championship draft!? (< this grammatical construction, an exclamation point and a question mark, is called an “interrobang.” There’s your trivia for the day).

Big question – Do I think my time is well spent focusing so much on aggressive decks heading in to 2021? No, I don’t. Not efficiently spent anyway. It’s going to be a lot of time and work for very minimal gains. That’s the truth about leveling up in CCGs once you’ve internalized all the basics. Lots of work for a little improvement. My focus in 2021 will be to draft and build better aggressive decks because that’s why I enjoy Eternal. There’s always something to focus on and get better at. Finding areas where I’m not great and fixing them is part of the fun for me. It all comes back to “What’s your goal?” My goal is to give myself a topic to occupy my brain when it wanders off in 2021. Building better Fire decks, and any benefits that may generate in the 2021 Draft Championship, will be a happy byproduct of that effort.

Sitting in the other Seat

People have this misconception that aggro decks can be completely autopiloted, both in limited and constructed. That’s true for, like, two turns. Then you have to start making hard decisions. Dealing the first 15 damage usually isn’t that difficult. Dealing the last can 10 be. I’m a strictly-mobile player, but I’m pretty sure there are other ways to end your turn besides A-space, y’all.

Watching Shouta navigate the end-game against control is a clinic. It’s like watching him play against himself. He knows what the control player wants to do. He knows how a control deck usually turns the corner on one powerful turn. He knows it all. Analyzing Shouta’s gameplay is far beyond me, but it made me think of a question that I frequently ask myself when I’m making difficult choices in game: What does my opponent want me to do?

As the resident Control Master of planet Earth, Shouta knew exactly what his opponents wanted him to do in the endgame – and he didn’t cooperate. You shouldn’t either.     

Answering that question: “What does my opponent want me to do?” requires you to have an understanding of your opponent’s deck and gameplan. When I see my opponent playing Feln, it’s safe to say I know their plan. Then I try to screw it up as much as possible. Enacting your deck’s plan is one aspect of playing well, but disrupting your opponent’s plan can be equally important (both in limited and constructed).

My tournament and testing partner, Charlie, mastered the Aetherworks Marvel deck while I was piloting Mardu Vehicles around Southern Maine. While playing against the deck so often was a miserable experience, I got to see it played at an extremely high level repeatedly. When I sat down at a tournament and saw my opponent was playing Aetherworks Marvel, I felt advantaged in that matchup. Time and again, I’d played against this deck in the hands of a great pilot. Playing against Aetherworks Marvel felt easy when I wasn’t playing against Charlie. These people made mistakes he didn’t make. They sequenced improperly. Weirdly, I knew my opponents’ deck better than they did in some matchups because I’d seen it played well so many times. I was used to playing against the deck on hard mode – everything else was easier by comparison.

Playing games of limited when you have a deep understanding of the format can feel just as easy. If my opponent plays their third power and it turns out they’re playing Feln, I’ll map out their next 3-5 turns in my head. What are those turns going to look like if I’m playing against a good Feln deck? I will put uncommons in my opponent’s hand at this point but not rares. What if they play Hearty Warrior and then Feartracker? What if it’s Acrid Scorpion and Feartracker?  Hearty Warrior and Tentaclesis? Can I beat any of these things? I make a plan assuming that my opponent’s deck is good and they’re going to play it well. When those things don’t happen, the game is on Easy mode. When you’ve mentally prepared yourself for your opponent to do reasonable but powerful things (playing a common 4 drop and uncommon 5 drop on curve is hard to beat, but not broken,) anything else they do seems simple to deal with.

It’s easy for me to map out my opponent’s next 3-5 turns when I’m playing against Feln. It’s easy for me to look at the cards they’ve played, how much power they have, and make reasonable assumptions about what cards they’re holding. Extrapolating that same information when I play against Rakano or Stonescar is hard for me. It’s almost guesswork. Why? I don’t know those decks nearly as well. I haven’t drafted or played them enough. My brain hasn’t internalized that information. After thousands of hours of play, my brain maps out 3-5 Feln turns without much active thought on my part. It doesn’t map out Rakano turns as easily. That’s what I’m trying to correct. It takes serious mental effort to mentally map out what my aggro opponents might do over multiple turns. I can do it – but it’s difficult and I often get it wrong. That’s the gap I’m trying to close.

In-game Examples

Wurmcalling

You have a sweet Time deck and que in to the guy who write the articles, Schaab, who’s playing the deck he won’t stop talking about, Feln. You cast Wurmcalling on Turn 3 and the game is looking great for you. On my turn 5, I cast a cheerful shepherd and pass the turn.

How can you tell if I’m planning to cast Grisly Contest or Wisdom of the Elders at the end of turn? You can’t. The play patterns look exactly the same. I could be planning to chump block and dig for answers at the end of turn with Wisdom of the Elders or I could be hoping to kill your first monster. Okay, so you recognize that I passed the turn with three power available to potentially grisly contest your wurm, so now the question is what do you do?

Predictable opponents are easier to beat. This is true even when they play really powerful cards like Wurmcalling. My gameplan changes when I see that card played against me on turn three. I’m assuming I’m going to see a 7/7 on turns 5 and 6 and start crafting my plan accordingly. That plan isn’t always great, mind you, because I’m going to be facing two gigantic monsters eventually but at least I can plan.

Let’s talk about the above scenario for a minute.

Schaab turn 5, playing Feln:  cast cheerful shepherd and pass the turn back with three power available.    

If I’m the one who cast Wurmcalling: I’m spending 5 power on turn 5. My opponent’s three available power on such an important turn is definitely a red flag so I’d consider other options if I have them. This exact scenario happened to me in game the other day. I held up three power for grisly contest on turn 5 expecting a wurm but instead my opponent played a 2-drop and a 3-drop and then passed the turn back. Now what? Use my grisly contest on the 3-drop? I only have so many creatures to sacrifice and obviously I needed them to kill the wurms. I ended up not using that three power for the turn, which doesn’t sound like much, but that’s the kind of resource advantage that can quickly snowball in a game of limited.

It’s important to highlight that my opponent had another way to spend 5 power on the aforementioned turn. If they hadn’t, I think it would’ve been correct to play the wurm even with the threat of grisly contest. Make your opponent have it. If you don’t cast your wurms, you lose the games when your opponent has the removal and you also lose the games when they don’t. If I’m holding Wisdom of the Elders in the above scenario and my opponent doesn’t cast a wurm, I’m throwing a party in my head.

Biting Winds

Wisdom of the Elders being 10x boosted makes decisions so much more difficult when playing against primal decks. Here’s a recap of a game I played a while back:

Schaab T2: Play Sky Serpent

Opp T3: play power, pass.

Schaab T3: no attack with Sky Serpent. Opponent Casts Wisdom of Elders at end of turn. Schaab feels dumb.

Opp T4: play power, pass.

Schaab T4: My opponent is representing biting winds. Obviously they cast Wisdom last turn and might have another one. I don’t want to miss three damage but I also don’t want to let my opponent keep drawing cards at end of turn with multiple Wisdoms. Two years ago, I probably would have said “if they have it, they have it. I’ll have to get it out of their hand eventually” which is generally true. But I decided, again, not to attack. They didn’t cast another Wisdom. This continued for a few more turns. They’d leave up three power. I wouldn’t attack with my Sky Serpent.

Later in the game, after my opponent had played all their cards, I learned that they never had biting winds in their hand. They were just representing it the whole time and I was playing around it. One might bemoan all of the damage missed with sky serpent in the early turns while I was respecting the removal spell my opponent didn’t have (I certainly would have earlier in my playing career) but it was a calculated decision. Here’s information I knew at the time but my opponent didn’t: I had ways to spend all of my power for multiple turns while they were representing biting winds. I could spend 4, 5, 6, & 7 power on those turns while my opponent used 0, 2, 3, & 4 power. That’s a favorable exchange I was willing to make even if I was potentially missing sky serpent damage. Eventually, my opponent had to play all of their cards to keep up with all of the power I was spending every turn. They didn’t have biting winds but it didn’t matter. The resource advantage I had accrued over those turns by using all my power was too much to overcome and won me the game.

Play your cards. Don’t lose to cards your opponent doesn’t have in their hand. Especially in draft. But if you have equally good options, don’t do what your opponent wants you to do. Your opponent has a plan. Your job is to screw it up.

Mentally, I think my turns look like this:

  1. How can I spend all of my power this turn?
  2. Is that what I want to do?
  3. What does my opponent want me to do?

If my Time opponent has an Ancient Machinist in play and passes turn 6 with all their power up, I’m gonna go ahead and assume they want me to play my most expensive unit on my turn so they can make it disappear or play reality snap. I’ll play two 3-drops instead if I have that option. Your opponent has a plan – you don’t have to help them enact it.

The Knowledge Grind

Draft leaderboard mainstay, streamer, and Farming Eternal podcast guest @Tyler_Chaney (JohnAvon in game) described limited as a “massive knowledge grind” on a recent episode. Having listened to him on the podcast and his stream, I agree with a lot of what Tyler says, but this phrase specifically spoke to my gaming soul. What a perfect description. Draft, both during the drafting process and in-game, is trying to apply what you know to make the best decision you can over and over and over again. A knowledge grind indeed.

There are no secret answers out there that will make you great at limited. It’s a matter of repeatedly applying simple principles to novel situations. The fundamentals are easy to learn. The masters of the game know which fundamentals apply in which situations. Winning games isn’t about knowing facts. It’s about applying simple concepts correctly.

Attempts to improve my Fire drafting skills have been a harsh reminder of this reality. I’ve been posting some questions on the Farming Eternal discord and have received responses from some the game’s best drafters (this is not hyperbole. I also bother my buddies at Friends of Eternal when I need their constructed expertise).    

My questions, after some reflection (which you should never put in your deck), boiled down to this: GIVE ME A PICK ORDER FOR FIRE! I stated my questions more eloquently but that was the gist of it. When I asked about how to value certain cards, the answer was essentially the same answer I’d give: it depends. What does the rest of your deck look like? What’s your plan? Is it to go wide? How heavily are you leaning fire?

…… Good questions. Annoyingly correct questions. That is not a pick order, but thanks. Those players, the ones who so graciously gave me their insights about drafting aggro decks, see what an aggressive deck’s plan is far before I do in the drafting process. They see the pieces of that puzzle coming together in a way that I don’t. You can’t fix that with generic card evaluation. It all depends on everything else. That’s why it’s hard. So I’m going to continue to watch people who are better than me. I’m going to ask questions. Then I’ll listen.

Areas of Aggro Focus

Patience

It’s agnozing, really. Even knowing the outcome, watching Shota pass the turn back to the control player with lethal Shock in his hand for multiple turns is almost painful to watch. He has his reasons, obviously, but everything about it seems intuitively wrong to me. Of course you shock your control opponent. They’re going to draw their more powerful cards soon. But no. Shota waits, takes away his opponent’s outs so the only one left is Negate, then fires it off. Again, analyzing Shota’s play is far beyond my ability, but my general takeaway is this: Sometimes it is correct to wait even if everything about intuitive play screams that you should just fire away.

The Turn

From a drafting perspective, I need to build stronger mental frameworks for aggressive archetypes so I can see them coming together earlier in the draft. From a gameplay perspective, Tyler_Cheney accurately described my greatest obstacle:

“The toughest part of aggro is knowing when to flip the switch. Up to a certain point you an’t afford to waste a single card, but after that point, value doesn’t matter at all and it’s correct to throw anything away to close the gap. Identifying that point is the most skill testing part of aggro I think. When you transition from the ‘playing with what is in your hand’ phase, to the ‘playing with what is in your deck’ phase.”

Exactly. I identify this turn more often than new players. @emoneybags identifies this turn more easily than I do. Lee Shi Tian (another Magic Hall if Famer) gets it right an extraordinarily high percentage of the time. We all know what we are supposed to do. The elites are just better at it.

My response:

“For me, it’s really difficult to separate my decision from the result. For example, when I play Feln, I can lose a game and be 100% comfortable with my decisions even if they didn’t work out. I never feel that way when I lose games with aggro decks. I’m constantly questioning if I pulled the trigger too soon, misevaluated the game state, etc. And since results aren’t a great indicator of the ‘correctness’ of our choices, I’m never sure if I flipped the switch too soon (or not soon enough).”

There are no easy answers for becoming better with aggro decks. It’s the correct application of simple concepts repeatedly, just like with control decks.  

Looking Forward

Watching Shouta methodically dismantle his opponents taught me the value of knowing my opponents plan. I imagine the game is much easier if your internal thought process is something like “Why would I, the best control player in the world, make that play?”

“Why would I make that play?” isn’t a very useful question for me right now when I play against great aggro drafters. They make better aggro plans and decks than I do. Will I be the best Fire drafter in Eternal if I spend all of 2021 focusing on building better Fire decks? No, I won’t be. But here’s the point: Let’s say I spent the next 6 months drafting Fire decks. Naturally, I’d be a better Fire player by May 2021, but I’d also be a better Feln player. I’d have better mental frameworks for the decks I’m playing against. I’d be able to more easily identify what’s in their hands by their lines of play. I’d be better at figuring out their plans and trying to disrupt them.

For an example of why knowing your opponent’s plan is important, look no further than Shouta. Mono-red in the hands of the control master looked unbeatable. He knows the control players plan better than anyone. The game is much easier when you know what your opponent wants to do. That’s why he makes very few balloon animals (also because that was a lie intended to entertain the reader and motivate them to continue reading. Mission accomplished I guess. Happy drafting!)

-Schaab

Let’s Talk Limited Patreon: https://www.patreon.com/LetsTalkLimited?fan_landing=true

You can find me in the LetsTalkLimited section of the Farming Eternal Discord https://discord.gg/YfQVbjZ

UPDATES

Quadrant Theory Set Review

@Kasendrith, fantastic streamer and Pack 1 Pick 1 kinda person (Oh yeah, and top 16 World’s competitor), has been kind enough to invite me on his stream for a Quadrant Theory-centric review of Set 10! Kas is the first Eternal streamer I started watching, I tune in every Saturday and Sunday morning, and I am oozing with excitement to be a guest. Time and Date TBD

For those unfamiliar with Quadrant Theory as a card evaluation tool, here’s your primer.

  • I made a Twitter. I’m not sure why. My real life is the opposite of when I play Eternal: I have no plan. @LetsLimited if Twitter is your thing.
  • 2020 Draft Champion @Gunner116 has started streaming. If you want to hear high-level drafting explained with a cool accent, check them out sometime.
  • At every opportunity, given the choice between formatting the blog and writing something new, I have very clearly opted to write something new. That being said, given that I still have so much to say after I’ve written this much, the functionality of the website is increasingly becoming a priority for me. Updating the website and perks for Patreon members have both been on my mind lately, so be on the lookout for those in the near future.      
  • There are few things I enjoy more than listening to high-level Magic players commentate on the play of other elites. If you want to see Shouta play control, here he is vs. Reid Duke with LSV and Marshall Sutcliffe in the booth.

Author’s note

My favorite part of having this blog, by far, is seeing that people from all over the world are reading my work. To my international readers: I adore you. Thank you for reading. As someone who loves words, I sometimes worry that my cultural references or idioms will be confusing for non-regional readers (Who is Stevel Urkel? What is Full House? Why is he calling me a choir?). If any of my more eccentric writing didn’t translate particularly well for you, I’d love to hear about it. Thanks again for reading!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: