Interview: Ben Loeb, Silicon Dynasty winner
By Ken Baumann
I spoke with Silicon Dynasty champion and veteran Malcolm / Tymna pilot Ben Loeb about preparing for tournaments, mulliganing with discipline, and where the metagame is headed. We hope the condensed conversation below is helpful!
Do you track your games?
I don't play often enough these days, but I used to. I do believe tracking games is very important, and have friends who record their games so they can discuss plays and decision points later.
What's your testing group like?
Most players are on Partner or Grixis piles. It's a cross between friendly games and a testing group, and initially started out as a weekly cEDH night. We've recently split into ~8 people teams and score points based on how people do in tournaments to encourage competition amongst ourselves. Winning Silicon Dynasty put our team way in the lead, which I’m excited about.
In your group, do you usually stick to a deck you're preparing for the next
tournament, or jump around?
It depends on the proximity to a tournament. The further we are from a tournament the more room there is for experimentation. If we need to learn a specific matchup, players will bring in a deck that’s needed (like Winota, for example).
Are there any general principles you try to adhere to while playing in
I'm very familiar with tournament settings from 60-card Magic (mostly Modern, but Pauper recently). For Silicon Dynasty I didn't put much pressure on myself; win or lose, I was going to enjoy myself. I got decent sleep each night.
What specific lessons have you learned across your last few tournaments? There are a couple of plays I’m really proud of. At Punt City I resolved Silence and then Peer Into the Abyss targeting myself while an opponent controlled a Consecrated Sphinx. I somehow didn’t have a winning line through the onboard stax, so I just cast Windfall to cause a draw and move on to Game 2.
At Silicon Dynasty in Round 6 I cast Imperial Seal (for Fierce Guardianship) and then cast Doomsday to shuffle. Why? Because I controlled Esper Sentinel and wanted to protect the Doomsday with a potential Esper draw.
There's a lot of room to be creative in cEDH games, and matches with good players can get really weird. I recommend taking things slow; don't overlook things. Another thing to do: write down stax pieces before attempting a win. A method I use to slow down is to think of the entire line you'll use to win—all the way to completion. For example: during the finals match at Silicon Dynasty, I realized that I didn’t need two blue mana for Thoracle via a Mnemonic Betrayal, though that was my first thought. But I only realized that by slowing down and thinking it through. I really liked using the Epic Storm mana tokens that were available at Silicon Dynasty to track and think through lines.
Where do you think the meta is going?
Things are going more and more towards high-color Partner piles. These piles are simply filled with some of the most efficient cards in our format, and their wins are compact and easy to assemble. I think the metagame will homogenize to some extent towards these and away from synergy driven decks.
What mistake do you think people make often at the table?
People are slow to realize the context of the game: short or long, grindy or all-in. You can ask yourself this question to help find your opening for a win attempt: Are my odds going to get better or worse as I wait? Patience is fine, but a 10% chance to win is still worth an attempt if you’re confident those odds will go down if you pass the turn.
Why did you play Malcolm / Tymna over other decks?
I also considered Armix / Kraum because I expected to see a lot of commander-centric decks. But I think Malcolm / Tymna is under-represented and isn’t correctly threat-assessed. Ultimately I felt more comfortable on Malcolm / Tymna; I thought experience matters more than deck choice once you are playing one of the best decks. I’ve also noticed that people are not used to fighting commanders that produce mana; they're used to fighting commanders that produce card advantage. In Midrange games in which everyone has more resources (e.g. Esper Sentinel, Rhystic Study, etc.), mana matters more than cards. Malcolm excels at that kind of game.
Was it hard to play a deck without Dockside Extortionist or Underworld
Yes. But I’ve got options. Without Breach I have Yawgmoth's Will. For Dockside, I have Phantasmal Image. Despite missing the powerful red cards, I think Malcolm / Tymna is one of the most versatile decks in cEDH because you have both ramp and draw in the command zone. The bread and butter of Midrange is Turn 1 Malcolm, Turn 2 Tymna with one mana up for interaction. This deck—and its access to Silence effects—also fits my playstyle of making my win attempts are surefire.
What card or cards do you think are underplayed, given where the meta is
Grafdigger's Cage is an example. I added more stax pieces before the tournament, though to be honest I didn’t even see some of them. I never saw Aven Mindcensor, for example.
Did your expectations of Turbo vs. Midrange vs. Stax proportions match up to
For the most part. I went first 5 out of 6 rounds I played, and that certainly helped. Slicer was a surprise and performed like a stax deck by virtue of its extreme aggression. Otherwise, I played against very few stax decks, and I think that is indicative of the blue midrange decks being favored against stax.
Is there any deck in particular which you think is underexplored (other than
Malcolm / Tymna)?
Slicer is certainly strong and warps the game around its clock, but it’s essentially unplayable in a pod with another Slicer deck because of the legend rule. I think Kinnan's very strong. All the blue Midrange decks feel that they can be optimized more, but only in small ways. I really believe that too many people choose to play non-blue decks; I think there's a single-digit number of sans-blue decks that are really good. And again, I expect to see more homogenized Partner piles.
What theories or concepts have helped you the most with playing or
I don't think anyone mulligans nearly enough. Pros in Magic say that people don't mulligan enough in 60-card formats—so imagine how much more that advice should apply to a 100-card singleton format! Mulligan until you see something cracked. One of my strengths is being disciplined regarding mulligans in non-tournament games as well as your tournament games. You should make those decisions match as closely as you can. Trust your mulligan goals, and trust the process. For example, with Malcolm / Tymna, the goal is to either cast Malcolm on Turn 1 or do something at least as powerful. I think being a good Jeweled Lotus deck has a lot of value. For more information check out Matt Sperling’s article.
What goals are you setting for yourself next?
My number one goal is to see friends at events. If that's your first goal, you'll feel less pressure and have a better time whether you win or lose. I'd love to get another Top 16 because it's fun to keep up my record. Actually, and it wasn’t my goal until right now: I want to keep my number one Eminence record.
What advice would you give to someone new to cEDH tournaments?
Get some 60-card tournament experience. That’ll show you what to expect for tournament procedures, playing under pressure, and more.