Talking With The Pros:
Welcome to a
special edition of Techsas!
This week I'm kicking off something new that
I hope you'll enjoy and find informative, and that's
interviews with some of the most popular players on
the Pro Tour. I
read the Sideboard magazine, and coverage of major
events, but they don't always ask questions that I
want to know the answers to, so I figured the best
way to get my answers would be to go ahead and find
out myself, then share the information with my
audience here on The Pojo.
I hope you enjoy reading these interviews as
much as I enjoy doing them, and if you have any
questions you'd like me to ask, let me know and I'll
be sure to fit them in!
My first subject is someone who should be fairly familiar to anyone who has read online Magic theory for a while, and that is Adrian Sullivan. Adrian is one of the more unique personalities on the Pro Tour, known as much for his unique style as his deckbuilding and play skills. My first encounter with Adrian was during Origins in 1997, where I saw a large group of people watching a constructed side event of a guy who was keeping his life total in binary with Scrabble tiles. At the time I was a little more anal of a player and found this to be rather rude to opponents. I've relaxed since then and also come to know more about the man behind the Scrabble tiles.
Adrian has written Magic theory online for quite awhile, most recently on the now-defunct Dojo. Now Adrian spends a great deal of time working on new Magic decks for the upcoming Nationals tourney this summer. I asked Adrian about how much time a week he spends playtesting various decks.
"I playtest a lot. It depends, though. I generally do about five to six booster drafts a week, unless I'm HEAVILY focusing on a constructed format. Then I'll only play in one or two a week. This kind of playing isn't exactly playtesting, but broadening your horizons and playing multiple formats can sometimes provide unexpected results and inspiration. Actually playing with Magic cards in a constructed format, I probably play between two to three days a week. Sometimes more. On the other hand, I spend almost every day working on decks." I was trying to squeeze an exact number out of him, though, so I asked him how much time he figures he spends actually sitting down throwing cards at an opponent each week. "In a typical week, I spend 20 to 30 hours a week playing, usually closer to 20."
Adrian is mostly known for his deckbuilding skills, playing one of the first versions of Ponza to an almost Top 8 finish at the PT-NY in 1999 (he was kept out on virtue of tiebreakers), as well as decks like Chevy Blue, Baron Harkkonen, and ConTroll, so it is no surprise he prefer constructed formats to limited formats on the Pro Tour. "I prefer Constructed. It gives me a real chance to use my deckbuilding talents. I'm not as good a player as many people who are pros. I have to be a better deckbuilder.", Adrian told me. "I'm certainly not a tier-one player. I think I'm very good, but, I think I'm fairly typical of a Pro Player. I'm not exemplary." This made me curious, as one thing many players aspiring to the Pro Tour wonder is what separates them from the best players in the world. What makes Adrian different? He showed me his maturity as a Magic player with his response. "I often lose concentration in complicated situations. A good example [is] in limited, when you're playing with a very complicated board position, especially in a Green/White versus Green/White situation, where there can be a very stalled game. Sometimes, you'll see a player try to figure out what to do, and other times you'll see someone just give up in frustration, and attack or say go. I often don't have the focus to keep my game on that level where I'm constantly working on making the right decision. But, because I know I have this weakness, I keep working on it."
One of my other personal encounters with Adrian was at Pro Tour New York in 1999. The format was Urza Block Constructed, with only Urza's Saga and Urza's Legacy in the mix. In a tournament dominated by cards like Tolarian Academy, Fluctuator, and Temporal Aperture, I saw Adiran winning while dropping cards like Molten Hydra and Phyrexian Tower. In the well-known Baron Harkkonen deck, Adrian almost set a precedent for the modern-day Oath decks in Extended with a Green/Blue deck that played many unique cards, including Mahamoti Djinn, Splintering Wind and Hail Storm while abusing the synergy of Thawing Glaciers and Sylvan Library to great effect. Naturally, I wanted to know where Adrian gets his ideas from, and how he develops ideas into tournament-winning decks.
"One of the first steps I take is going through all of the new cards that come out and thinking about all of the changes that will happen in a format.", Adrian explained. "I try not to dismiss any idea out of hand. I know that I'll make about 50 or so decks for a format, and that 40 of them will be terrible. The thing is, 10 of those decks might have some promise, and as you playtest, maybe two or three of them will show extreme promise. Then, one or two decks might be exemplary." A kind of throw it at the wall and see what sticks theory, I said. "Somewhat, yes. But, the history lessons are important. The other thing I always do is pay attention to history. If a format reminds me of something in the past, I'll try to remember what made it work back then. Many deckbuilders have raw talent, but they don't use it well because they don't know that they're retreading discovered territory." In addition, Adrian explained that one major threat to new decks is sometimes the best players themselves due to an inability to think a little differently. "Other deckbuilders, especially a number of the pros, get stuck into a 'Group Think' mindset. One thing I found very useful is to not try to dismiss too much too quickly. Recently, I literally saw five or six top eight performers from a PT knock someone's idea for a deck, and basically because they didn't think it 'sounded' good. You have to ignore people a lot when they are clearly being dismissive." Adrian offered one more bit of advice for others trying to build their own decks. "The final big pitfall is not desperately clinging to a deck you like even if it isn't doing well. You have to be attached to making a GOOD groundbreaking deck, not just a deck that is different. One of the worst things you can do is to stop thinking for yourself. Don't bullheadedly stick to your own ideas and refuse to listen to people, but at the same time, even smart people get things wrong."
Now, building 50 or more decks for a format sounds like an awful lot, so I wondered how many Adrian actually built and physically played on average, and how many he wrote down, looked at, and thinks won't work. To my surprise, he gives almost every deck a least a try. Of course, Adrian has never done anything else conventionally, so why should he build playtest decks like most people do? "I'm not sure if you're familiar with 'deck mapping'. It's a concept I originated to use playing cards and a piece of paper listing card names... It allows you to play many decks without actually having to put them together.", Adrian explained. "In fact, I don't generally put a deck together physically until I know it is one of the really possible decks." I asked Adrian a bit more about deck mapping, and he pointed me to the following link: http://www.neutralground.net/Forums/ForumItem.asp?NewsID=803&BackupLink=SiteMap.asp. If you are someone who wants to be able to playtest more efficiently, I highly recommend taking a look at this page for more info on this technique. Adrian also has certain standards he looks for with any new deck. "The first thing I do to figure out whether or not to discard a deck is to decide what deck I really want to beat. For example, with Chevy Blue (my regionals deck), I wanted to beat Fires. Every other deck I made for the format, they all had to beat Fires if I even wanted to consider them. For PT-Japan, every deck I made I wanted to be able to beat Black-Blue or Black-Blue-Red control or Green-Red beatdown. Whatever the format, I try to figure out what people will probably play, based on experience with similar formats, checking up on tournament info online, listening to pros talk. If I can't beat the deck I want to beat, I tweak and tweak, and at some point, it can clearly be a loss and I toss the deck."
With all these unique decks and some pretty solid pro-level finishes, I asked Adrian to tell me what finish he was most proud of. "I'm still probably proudest of Rome, though. At Rome, I was gunning for Top 8 with the first "modern" Necro-Combo deck, NecroNaught [This deck featured the Pandemonium/Phyrexian Dreadnaught combo with Necropotence for card drawing. At the time, Necropotence wasn't considered a combo-generating card.] I've had a lot of people tell me that they thought that that was the best deck of the tournament. Eric Taylor and Eric Lauer both thought it was the best deck there, and others have said the ssame thing to me, but the deck got stolen between rounds, and I wasn't able to get it back together in time to keep up my record. I was 8-1-1 when it happened. I beat two of the Englishmen who worked on NecroPebbles at that tournament, so I think I might have inspired a few people too. Still, though, it might have been very frustrating, but it was a really exciting tourney."
Keeping in mind that many of The Pojo's readers are relatively new to the game, I wondered what Adrian had to say to the people new to the game of Magic and how to improve their game. "Well, the first thing is really simple, find people to play with who want to play well. You can learn a lot by just playing with others who want to improve. Then, go to tournaments, and do what you can to learn from the people who do well. Not all of them will want to pass you any pointers, but some of them may have some insights into things you don't know. But, really important here, is don't believe everything you hear. Keep it in mind that people might believe that something is true, but they could be wrong.", Adrian told me.
Adrian was a bit more talkative than I expected, so I can't fit it all in one column, but I invite you to come back, as I'll soon be posting part two of this interview where we'll find out, among other things, where the deck name "Chevy Blue" comes from, and why Adrian really hates Pale Moon. Hope to see all of you back here soon!