The Season Three Invitational in New Jersey is right around the corner, and I'm here in Roanoke, VA. I have the fortunate opportunity to get feedback and advice from some of the greatest players on the SCG circuit: Myself,Brad Nelson, Gerry Thompson,Brian Braun-Duin, Chris VanMeter, Todd Anderson. I imagined such a super-team would come together to break both Standard and Legacy to come to the consensus best decks in both formats. We've met up each day and discussed what we liked but without much of a uniform conclusion. Why do people prefer to play different decks?
It's not that the best deck in the format may be a suboptimal deck for a particular person to play. Some just don't want to be "that guy" (or gal), genuinely believe the deck is not that good, don't have the cards for it, would rather play what they know, or have the deck that beats the best deck. Today I'm going to break down the many factors that lead to a person's deck choice. I'd love to attach real numbers and percentages to the importance of each category, but as of now, I only have an intangible feeling of how to weigh each. I do know that I'm happy to sacrifice a few assumed match win percentage points here and there if I feel more experienced with a deck rather than jumping ship at the last minute, regardless of how strong the new deck is.
This comes on two levels. For new players who don't have access to all the rares and mythics in the world, they are limited on deck choices from the start. Even players playing for ten or fifteen years don't have access to everything at their fingertips. We often see the same players playing the same deck in Legacy, and in some part, it's because the format is so expensive to transition between archetypes.
The Magic community is a very friendly one. Many of us are here for the people and our very best friends have come from Magic and going to tournaments to play with them is a big part of our lives. Borrowing and loaning cards before a tournament is commonplace and often happens during the hour of registration. I've been part of the last-minute scramble many times.
But I can't say I'm a fan of the hustle. It often adds unneeded stress before the tournament even starts when you worry if you'll be able to complete your deck or not. If all of a sudden you want to switch from Mono-Black Devotion splashing Green to splashing Blue and need to find Watery Graves but don't want to buy them, you'll pull your strings or call in favors to borrow them. This sometimes adds marginal but real additional pressure to the tournament, as you have to remember to give the cards back, and they need to remember to get them. Maybe it's worth it just to stick with the Green splash. In Legacy the impact is more compounded the more expensive the cards are.
If you've been playing Mono-Black Devotion all season and have been having good results, you need to have a good reason to switch away from it going into a big tournament like an Invitational. Learning the subtle intricacies of a deck is something you've learned through months of practice and is difficult to impossible to replicate in a brief period of time if you decide to play another deck shortly before an upcoming event.
Large tournaments are no time for playtesting. If you are surgical with the most popular deck, outplaying people in mirrors and beating bad matchups makes it so you can't justify moving away from what's tried-and-true onto the new flavor of the week. A lot of people get the fear that their deck is too beatable and gunned for, and they audible to a weaker tier two deck. If it's not broke, don't fix it.
This goes along with deck experience. Every new Standard format tends to have a U/W Control variant along with a playable Mono-Red deck. If you played the archetype in the past with good results, it's unlikely that the new breed of the archetype is far off from what you're already familiar with.
People have fun for different reasons. I have the most fun when I'm learning on the fly from game-to-game. Winning is enjoyable but often not so much as experiencing flow. Flow is when someone is immersed in a game because they are learning at the same rate as the challenges are presented. The swiss round structure is great for promoting flow, as every match should have players just barely figuring out how to win or ending up with a narrow loss but one where they come away learning something.
Then there are times where you just want to play sweet cards. Big flashy creatures with cool effects pulling off a big win out of nowhere. If you're having a great time, you're on top of everything. The worst is getting tilted and being down about your tournament, wishing you never had showed up in the first place. Do what you like, you'll thank yourself at the end of the day.
People learn what the cards and decks do in a format over time, and there's something to be said with showing up with something no one has seen before. Before I knew that Mutavault made Pack Rat bigger, I fell into that trap once or twice, but now it's such common knowledge that the powerful interaction has lost a taste of its potency.
If you sit down across from me in a Legacy tournament, you can be nearly certain that I'm playing Infect. The same can be said with Ross Merriam with Elves and Joe Lossett with Miracles. You would say that with Todd Anderson with Sneak and Show as well, that is until he shows up with Esper Deathblade and rattles of 9 wins in a row.
When people know what deck you're playing they will mulligan appropriately and sequence their spells accordingly. People have adapted to what I have in Infect, playing around Daze and Stifle and not opening themselves as much to the combo kill. During the same period of time, I've gotten more experienced with the deck and have adjusted the card choices to have a better list. Overall the win percentages are the same now as they were six months ago, but if I still had the surprise factor going for me who knows how well the deck could be doing.
Everybody wants to play something that does powerful things. Something as strong as Sneak and Show can carry someone to match wins regardless of experience with the deck, while trying to get there with a bunch of small creatures like out of Death & Taxes will be more difficult for a first-timer. Getting "free wins" can never be overrated. Neither can having powerful effects like a Sphinx's Revelation to dig you out of a hole. There should never be any shame is playing the strongest cards in the format, irrespective of how cheesy people think they are and how "little skill" the cards take to operate. Wins are wins, and you won because you chose the right deck with the best cards, while they did not.
This is a category that involves the number of decisions you have per game and also your familiarity with a deck and the format. Sometimes you want a more simple deck than you're used to, sometimes more, and sometimes exactly what you're used to. Basically you have to know your skill range and learning curve and not to go far outside what you honestly feel you're capable doing, while not going so far down that scale as to bore you.
I played a Psychatog + Counterbalance + Sensei's Divining Top deck in Extended long ago. It was known as the best deck in the format, albeit very difficult to play. Throughout that tournament I made countless mistakes and left with my mind feeling like a pile of mush. Unsatisfied, and with a poor finish, I left wishing I had just played Zoo (which Raphael Levy won with).
Some decks lose until they win, while others are winning until they lose. Who's the beatdown is always the question. Some people like to be the underdog, while others want to take the lead from the start. Boss Sligh has a short window where it's winning, and when it starts losing it feels very anemic and helpless, which is not a quality people like to experience. U/W Control in Standard plays from behind during the early turns before turning the corner to gain control. For them, that corner is the reason they play the deck, as are the subsequent turns with a handful of countermagic and planeswalkers in play. Basically you want to ask yourself how comfortable you are playing from behind or hoping to claw back into a game. In any case, it's unwise to play something that doesn't fit how you like the game to progress in terms of how you are winning and by what degree you are winning games.
Estimated Match Length
Tournament fatigue is a real thing. If your rounds are going to time each round or close to it, you won't have much time in-between rounds to get something to eat, blow off steam, or take a comfortable bathroom break. We only have so much mental energy to expend over the course of a day, and if you have to make hundreds of decisions per match, then you'll feel the effects of that mental drain in your later rounds.
I've made some huge blunders in the top 8 and in the later rounds of tournaments. Not eating well, not sleeping enough, and outside stress all take a toll on you as the later rounds approach. While this is all pretty obvious to have a correlation to stamina in Magic tournaments, sometimes we slip up and don't want to pay for expensive, bad venue food or we have trouble falling asleep the night before. Choosing a deck that saves your mental energy in the long run can lead to better play later on and is a real reason why I prefer decks that are capable of winning rounds in quick fashion.
Tournament Opportunity Cost
This was not a factor I realized until I got to Roanoke. I personally get to play in tournaments multiple times a week and even more on Magic Online. Others have important priorities like families and full-time jobs that limit the number of Magic tournaments they can play. Even if a deck can be seen as better for one reason or another, it's better for the player to play what they know and not to blow one of their few chances to get to play Magic.
The opportunity cost can also mean not choosing the deck that gives you the best chance of winning the tournament. To some, winning is less of a big deal, while having fun is the main goal. This can lead to playing an off-the-wall deck just to do it because you feel like it. Whichever camp you fall into, the number of tournaments that you can enter is definitely a consideration and is amplified the fewer you are able to enter. Hopefully for you, it's an easing feeling, and you find a deck that you're comfortable with running just the one time and not the anxiety of trying to find the one perfect deck for your one chance.
This falls into the category of people who choose their deck wanting to beat the best deck(s). While this is a relevant factor for picking your deck, it's also the one that can come back to bite you the hardest. An example of this was me playing Boss Sligh at the Season Two Invitational in Columbus. I felt like people wouldn't show up with Drown in Sorrow in their sideboards, and thankfully I was right. If they did then my chances would've been significantly hindered.
Switching a deck or cards choices based on a perceived metagame also comes at a cost. You have to adjust outside of what you're used to for a big payoff. If the metagame choice is an entire deck that you aren't familiar with but are convinced that it's the best for that tournament, then you have to weigh the importance of possibly making mistakes versus having better overall matchups. The absolute worst is when your prediction is wrong and you leave the tournament wishing that you'd stuck to your guns and played the bread-and-butter that you've been running all season.
Some people simply hate being completely out of a game or match. Some decks are fair, while others are unfair. The amount of control you have can go both ways as I've seen people play Goblin Charbelcher just because they want to roll the dice and let the Magic Gods decide their tournament fate. This is an example of using Magic as a medium to blow off steam and relax, similar to buying into a Craps table. For them this is exactly what they need as an escape from the pressures of their everyday lives.
Others want to be capable of winning every match, both through maindeck and sideboard card choices. If you hate losing to Mono-Red then playing a deck that crushes with sideboard Drown in Sorrow and maindeck Pharika's Cure while still having game against other decks can be a deck choice that gives you the most control over your fate. It's all about having a choice that you're happy with, as a good mindset going into a tournament leads to good play and better results.
Sometimes you want to play a deck that's unestablished but you're scared that you may be the only one or that you believe that it's good for the wrong reasons. When you see your pet deck win or top 8 a recent event, that empowers your belief that the deck is actually good and viable. Reading about a deck in an article or watching it on coverage also validates deck choices. Even just sitting down with your buddy and bouncing off ideas of how the deck is good and having them agree with you can be enough to pull the trigger on registering your 75 cards.
So what's the best deck for you?
For many of the factors that lead to people deciding on a deck, the factors aren't hard positives in either direction. You have to ask yourself what you're trying to accomplish. If the answer is winning the tournament, then you want to look at each category I listed and honestly answer them. Many won't be relevant to you, but each comes as a real cost to your mental well-being for trying to win a tournament that may have double-digit rounds and lasts all day, if not multiple days. In the end, Magic is all about having fun, but what you feel is the most fun can also be the best choice for your overall tournament experience, which is in many cases, coming away with a trophy or blue envelope.