Coverage Stories: Decklist Edition

by Tobi Henke on 11 May 2018, Friday

Tobi Henke

Coverage Stories:  On Decklists


I've been doing Magic event coverage for a long time, spanning two decades and two languages as well as four different websites—but mostly for Wizards of the Coast for whom I've worked at more than 100 shows. As one can imagine, a lot of stories have piled up during that time.


Today I want to share some of them: a little peak behind the scenes, very little relevant advice, but hopefully something someone out there finds entertaining.


At GPs nowadays, I'm mostly responsible for administrative tasks. Among other things, I pick feature matches, write the intro texts at the top of the landing page that everyone always skips past, and deal with decklists.

In fact, decklists make for such a huge topic, the following is all about the magical 75 …

Language, Please!


European GPs feature players from a bunch of different countries, cards in a bunch of different languages, and decklists to match. Typing up non-English lists is a hassle because it means translating first.


Then again, once you've seen a hundred Temur Energy or Affinity lists in English you can usually work out every card from a Spanish version as well. Maybe you stumble over a sideboard card or two, but online search engines have become quite good at helping out here.


Yet there's a reason why tournament rules are concerned specifically with "any individual card, based on its English card title."


For example, the earliest German printings of both Coercion and Duress got the same name by accident; though you can typically tell which is meant by checking whether or not the format that's being played is Mirage Block Constructed. Similarly, no one ever confused German Time Sieve for German Timesifter because no one ever played Timesifter to begin with.


However, I still remember an Extended-format Grand Prix where, halfway through Day 2, I came across an Italian player's list with four sideboard copies of "Colonna di Fuoco."


An internet search revealed that that could be Firespout. Unfortunately, it might as well be Pyrostatic Pillar. Both cards were legal, both made sense in the context of the deck/metagame, and both received the same name in the Italian translation: literally "column of fire."

An easy mistake to make, I suppose. I mean, the illustration for Firespout even recreates the earlier art, pillar of flame, Goblins, and all. Pillar of Flame, by the way, in case you're wondering, goes by a different name in Italy.


Back then, judges became involved and began investigating. Poor coverage-reporter me only needed to know which card to list. Judges, on the other hand, had to find out if the player was aware of the ambiguity and was trying to use it to his advantage.  Did he maybe board in Pyrostatic Pillar versus Storm and bring in Firespout against Zoo?


As far as I can recall, there was no indication of anything shady going on. Still, I wouldn't recommend putting "Colonna di Fuoco" on your decklist ever, or any non-English card name for that matter. Rather, earn yourself the goodwill of coverage and judges alike by writing in English, why don't you!

No Points for Style


There may be no extra points awarded for a beautiful decklist, but rest assured that there's also no advantage to handing in the most illegible scrawl you can muster.


Yes, Top 8 players at Constructed GPs get to take a look at their opponent's decklist before each game. However, what is actually handed out is a printed version of it. You can run, but you most definitely cannot hide what you're running. At best, you can delay the start of the Top 8 by a bit.


At least, I hope this misunderstanding is what caused a thing like the following:


Bringing It All Together


Non-English lists and badly written ones can't stop me. Even the above specimen wasn't that hard to decipher once I got the hang of it. Where it gets tricky is decklists which combine the two, and there have been many of these over the years.


My favorite story involved a Standard Esper Dragons list in French. Figuring out, say, "Prix ultime" or "Ojutai, seigneur-dragon" was easy enough:


Ultimate PriceDragonlord Ojutai


However, then there was "Marigot lugubre" or rather something like it. Bad handwriting made it impossible even to identify the words, at least for someone barely familiar with the language. Artificial intelligence comes up with Dismal Backwater when fed this exact string of letters, but here I needed human intelligence!


I went looking for a French judge, and found one, only to be told: "French card names? I don't know those. In my group at home, we all play with English cards!"


The judge almost sounded offended, and I sympathized with the sentiment. If only everyone preferred English cards, the problem wouldn't have arisen in the first place.


Now, though, I needed a solution and pleaded: "You're at least able to read the language. Just give me literal translations and I'll work out the original card names from there. I know this type of deck well enough."


That last sentence was of course spoken with the defiant confidence of someone who wills it to be true, a declaration of intent rather than statement of objective fact. Honestly, I had no idea what I was getting into here.


First up was "temporal excavation" and it took but a few seconds before I got it: Dig Through Time! I then realized that this might actually work. And it did. I don't recall all of the details, but the process was way more fun than I had imagined. Soon I was the sole contestant in my very own quiz show, questions and answers flying back and forth in a steady rhythm.


"Turning point of destiny?" – "Crux of Fate!"

"Scourge of the gall bladder?" – "Wait, what? … Oh, Bile Blight."


Eventually, the exhausted judge put down the sheet, sank into his chair, gave me a glum look, and offered up the final sideboard card: "Unbearable sadness."


Now that was a puzzle. Do you, dear reader, know unbearable sadness? You have until the end of the article to come up with an answer!

Further Study …


Did you know that it's possible to make 1s look like 2s, 2s look like 3s, 4s look like 1s, and vice versa all around? From time to time, I think that nothing will be able to amaze me again, but further study of decklists always leads to the realization that human ingenuity will never cease to amaze me.


Just take the case of the guy who employed almost all of the above number tricks, but even then the most generous reading of his decklist showed 16 sideboard cards. When asked if I could see his physical 15, he painstakingly de-sideboarded and one by one laid out 17 cards …


It's rare that an error is first discovered when coverage gets to type up decklists in preparation for the Top 8. It does happen, though, and it always makes for quite the feel-bad moment. I fully expected such a moment to occur and a game loss to be incurred, for example, when I typed up Mattia Rizzi's Grand Prix Copenhagen decklist last year.


Flooded StrandScalding Tarn


What he had registered was Grixis Death's Shadow with Flooded Strand in place of Scalding Tarn, even though the deck itself contained the latter. To my relief, judges decided on a somewhat unusual solution: Because the error was missed during an earlier deck check when a game loss might have been less relevant, and because it clearly was a clerical error with no possibility of foul play, Rizzi was given the option to continue playing without a penalty.


Except, going forward, he needed to use Flooded Strand for real.


This was no minor inconvenience. Scalding Tarn could fetch 86% of his mana-producing lands, Flooded Strand barely got 57%. With only seven mana sources in total, longer games already meant drawing useless copies of the deck's twelve fetch lands. To be flooded with Flooded Strand stranded in hand was an additional danger. Rizzi took the deal anyway.


Then he won his quarterfinals 2-0, meaning the game loss would have left him in a better position after all. To add insult to injury, the finals put him up against a version of Living End featuring four Fulminator Mage and three Beast Within, all within the main deck. The matchup wasn't great to begin with and Flooded Strand in particular was looking worse and worse.


So it was quite the feel-good moment when Rizzi won the tournament yet, in spite of everything!


Another time, I was checking lists to help compile a metagame breakdown, and one of them was completely in Chinese, basic lands and all, with the curious exception of Thunderbreak Regent and Icefall Regent. Whether it was Traditional Chinese or Simplified Chinese I don't recall. Either way, it definitely wasn't simple enough for me.


I was tempted to note down a copy of Blue-Red Dragons—what I see is what you get—and be done with it. We double checked anyway, and when we did, we learned the deck was in fact … Blue-Red Dragons. I like to imagine the player just wanted to be helpful, but for all I know the two cards probably got the same name in Chinese.


Earlier I mentioned that there are no extra points for a beautiful decklist, but there should be:


Another fun fact: Switzerland doesn't have a national language. It has four. There's Italian, French, German—well, German-ish—and a tiny minority in a few remote valleys speak Romansh, although no one knows why they, or anyone, would do that. The first foreign language for most people is English, but there's overlap between the native languages too.


So guess how many different languages one might find on a Swiss player's decklist! The only correct answer is of course: entirely too many.


Did you get that one right? Then it's time to return to the French card name quiz which ended with me having to figure out what card may have been translated as "unbearable sadness."


Just as I was about to admit defeat, to seek additional assistance, and to drown in sorrow for failing at the last moment, it dawned on me. Oh, right … Drown in Sorrow.


Thanks for reading! Until next time, I hope in your life you'll never have to know unbearable sadness!


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