At this point, it's tough to explain everything that goes into my thought process with regards to Magic. Everything is so ingrained that it's easy to forget the specifics of the how and why I make my decisions. One of my previous articles was an attempt at breaking it down, but obviously there were going to be some things I missed.
I don't expect this to be the complete version, but hopefully it can add to it and give you some extra things to think about.
Due to numerous reasons, this has plagued me in various tournaments, especially in Pro Tours. I could keep doing what I'm doing and find success occasionally, but I always know that I could be making better decisions and performing better. Even a broken clock is right twice a day (as evident by my Pro Tour Gatecrash performance), but I strive to correct that. These days, most of my thoughts are about deck selection, the process, and how to refine it.
One of the things that I've done the most poorly in regards to deck selection is not picking a deck that is "solid." It's tough to explain what I mean by that, as "solid" isn't exactly a descriptive term, but "flimsy" would be the opposite term, and that one I can explain.
Being flimsy can mean any number of things. The most common examples are decks that:
-Can't come back from behind
-Are linear, and therefore easy to play against and sideboard against
-Are supposed to be fast but don't have a backup plan in case things don't go as planned
-Require a certain card or subset of cards to function
-Can't function when your opponent plays certain card(s)
Abzan Reanimator would be a good example of a "solid" deck. You've got a lot of toughness and lifegain so you won't be beaten by aggro decks easily, you've got great answers for any problems, you have Siege Rhino to potentially pressure your opponents, and you've got a graveyard-based endgame that goes over the top of nearly everyone else.
Additionally, you aren't kold to any one card or strategy. Anafenza, the Foremost or Back to Nature might seem backbreaking, but you shouldn't be leaning on your graveyard cards or your enchantments. The great thing about having a solid deck is that nothing specific in your deck matters more than anything else. Your opponent might even overvalue one portion of your deck and over-sideboard against it. Meanwhile you're sideboarding out most of those cards because you don't need them to win.
On the other hand, Sultai Reanimator was often reliant on Sidisi, Brood Tyrant. It also died to a lot of commonly played removal, such as Lightning Strike. I don't often use the "It's bad, it dies to removal" argument, but basically everything dies to some sort of removal, counterspell, or discard effect, so it's not a point worth making. However, there is a benefit to playing a deck where your threats require different removal spells.
For example, a deck with Delver of Secrets, Nimble Mongoose, and Tarmogoyf is beautiful because each creature basically requires a different card to interact with it. Decks with Delver of Secrets, Deathrite Shaman, and Young Pyromancer end up being very poor because each creature basically dies to everything. Young Pyromancer can sometimes force your opponents into a bad spot by creating multiple threats, but your opponent never has to think about which card to shuffle away with Brainstorm -- All of their cards are live.
If you're playing Jeskai Tokens and your opponent plays Siege Rhino into Doomwake Giant, you're often left with just a Jeskai Ascendancy or a naked Goblin Rabblemaster in play. Either way, you're not in a good position, and have few, if any, ways to come back from that. Even something like End Hostilities means they get to play the first creature, forcing you to react again. I don't like being put in those situations when my opponent just has an average draw.
I don't want a pile of Jackal Pups against 0/3s and 2/4s. I want staying power and a mid- to lategame plan against midrange decks because they aren't (typically) expecting it and won't be prepared for it. Basically, I want my deck to have reach. Planeswalkers (and other difficult to kill threats) are great for that and provide a perfect pivot to a new gameplan.
I think Standard is a format where being solid is a much better plan than being flimsy, but that doesn't stop me from working on decks like Jeskai. After all, being flimsy is not without its benefits. They are often the most powerful decks, and they typically don't require you to expend a bunch of mental energy. That makes for a relatively easy day, which means you won't get exhausted during a long tournament.
Sometimes a flimsy deck is just better against the field, which was the case with Tom Ross with Boss Sligh at the 2014 Season Two Invitational or Brad Nelson with Sultai Reanimator at the Players' Championship. Sometimes the flimsy deck, like Delver, is so much better that there will be games you absolutely can't win, but you'll still win the vast majority of your games.
Just be aware of the limitations of your deck, and try to mitigate those weaknesses the best you can. Delver did that by eventually including Invisible Stalker, Geist of Saint Traft, and Moorland Haunt with equipment. Brad's W/R/X decks tend to do that with planeswalkers. There is almost always a way to add that extra layer to your deck.
Decks that appear to be flimsy but aren't are typically the best archetypes, but I've already written about that. Misdirection leads to poor decisions in deckbuilding, mulligan decisions, and sideboarding, so capitalize on that if possible.
Consolidate Sideboard Space
Your sideboard space is at a premium and you should treat it as such. Recently, I had a Jeskai Control deck I was playing in Legacy that wanted another answer to a resolved True-Name Nemesis, so I was sideboarding a second Supreme Verdict. However, I also had two copies of Wear//Tear, and I could consolidate a slot by cutting the Supreme Verdict and a Wear//Tear for a Council's Judgment.
Of course, Council's Judgment is slightly worse in some spots than either Wear//Tear or Supreme Verdict, but my matchups against decks where I'd want Wear//Tear or Supreme Verdict were already quite good, so even if I was being a tad inefficient, it wouldn't affect me negatively. It saved me a sideboard slot, which I used for another card against combo.
I lost to combo in the tournament, but it further reinforced the notion that what I did was correct. I did need that extra card, and it's possible I needed to find room for another. Whenever someone says "There's no room for it," they aren't trying hard enough. If you need it, you should be able to find a way.
Don't Have Dead Cards Against Popular Matchups
You might notice that I play way fewer Murderous Cuts than the rest of the world. There are decks like U/B Control, Jeskai Tokens, and Abzan Midrange where Murderous Cut is significantly worse than something like Hero's Downfall or Utter End. When you want to kill a creature, there aren't many better cards than Murderous Cut, but there are other permanents out there that need killing.
I've never been a fan of Magma Jet either. Players tend to overestimate what scry is worth, and Magma Jet rarely kills anything worthwhile. It could always go upstairs and fix your draws to some extent, but that isn't worth a card. In my opinion, it is functionally a dead card in many matchups.
How many Thoughtseizes I play depends on what the flavor of the week is. I've played as few as zero and as many as three, but I typically side up to the full four. Against U/B Control and W/U Heroic, I always wanted the full amount, but they aren't great in midrange mirrors or against purely aggressive decks.
Being able to make small changes to your deck like those has a larger impact than you might realize.
Don't Lose to the Little Guy
When I'm doing well, it's often because my deck is solid. It has few bad matchups, and I've prepared for even the unpopular decks. Nobody likes losing to Mono-Red every other weekend, so I've made it a point not to do that. Of course, if that lowers your percentages against other people, then it might not be worth it, but I find ways to accomplish my goals without sacrificing much of anything else.
By consolidating sideboard space like I did above, I also made my deck better against decks with planeswalkers. You can use similar tactics to make your deck better against things like Burn. For example, maybe my Thopter Foundry deck wants a sideboard win condition against people who go after my Thopter Foundries. Maybe I want a sideboard card against Temur Delver.
In that situation, it might be worth looking at cards like Baneslayer Angel and Timely Reinforcements. While they aren't the best cards for the matchups I wanted them in, they do give me a fighting chance against decks like Burn and Zoo. They also give me a powerful lifegain aspect to look for with Dig Through Time.
Without them, I'd lose a valuable angle to my deck. With a card like Dig Through Time, playing with unique effects adds a whole new dimension to your deck, as you're often seeing a lot of cards per game. You might only have one Timely Reinforcements, but you'll often be able to find it when you need it.
I used similar tactics in my run with Caw-Blade, and I rarely lost to decks like Mono-Red or Boros on the Open Series. It ended up proving very beneficial, as I played against those decks a lot over the course of the year. Had I not prepared for those matchups, I would likely be thousands of dollars poorer. The weekend I won both Opens, I faced Mono-Red Aggro in the finals of Standard and Zoo in the finals of Legacy.
Free Win Equity
Full credit for this section goes to Michael Jacob. When working with MJ, he'd often bring up how often a deck we were working on got free wins, and it became clear to me that it was a very important aspect of his deck selection.
With both players on equal footing, it can be difficult to find a way to win more than a coin flip. I try to gain my edges with deck tuning, but MJ wanted part of his edge to come from free wins. It didn't necessarily matter what specific deck MJ was playing, but no matter what, he wanted something that could capitalize if his opponent stumbled, whether it be because of mana screw, mana flood, or a bunch of mulligans.
You might be thinking that you're favored in those situations anyway, and that's certainly true, but being favored is not the same as winning nearly every time. MJ wanted to be doing powerful things and quickly. You would basically never see him piloting a do-nothing control deck, because those decks almost always gave your opponents enough time to draw out of whatever predicament they were in.
There is a huge difference between playing a Jeskai Flash deck that's creatureless and one with Augur of Bolas, Restoration Angel, and Boros Reckoner. One is flimsy, where you need to deal with every threat your opponent plays because you don't have a brick wall to give you virtual card advantage against their less powerful creatures. The other is a deck that can suddenly go on the offensive and punish opponents when they can't execute their gameplan.
The lesson here is that if your deck isn't punishing your opponents for their poor draws, you are giving up a lot of equity in a tournament environment where you need every edge you can possibly get. It's not something I tend to harp on, but it's always something I keep in the back of my mind.
Hard Read VS Soft Read
When a player is recounting his previous match to his friends, he'll often say something like, "I thought he had Mana Leak, so I was trying to play around it." The issue is that you can never tell if that player had a reason to believe their opponent had Mana Leak in the first place or if they were just scared of their opponent having it.
I've won my fair share of games because my opponents played around my Mana Leak that I didn't actually have, and I didn't even have to do anything special in order to make them do that. They wanted to seem like a good player, and Mana Leak is an easy enough card to play around. The problems start arising when you're playing against a deck that is able to capitalize on your opponent playing like they have three less mana than they actually have.
What they actually need to be thinking about is whether or not they are trying to make a hard read or a soft read, which are terms usually heard in the video game community. From the Super Smash Bros wiki:
"The relationship between the types of reads is a matter of risk versus reward; a soft read occurs when a player punishes an opponent's options while covering other options (often resulting in sub-optimal punishment), whereas a hard read occurs when a player specifically reads a single option with its optimal punishment but at the expense of not covering other choices the opponent could have made."
A hard read that your opponent has Mana Leak might mean playing the rest of the game with three mana open. A soft read might mean playing your second or third best spell into a potential Mana Leak. In the hard read case, you are potentially walking into a worst-case scenario where you're giving up a lot of tempo in an attempt to blank one of their cards. In the soft read scenario, you are consciously trying to make Mana Leak less effective against you but are still progressing your board in the off-chance they don't have it.
I think when most players get the idea that their opponent has something, they automatically start treating it like a hard read when they shouldn't. There is a solid middle ground to take, but the allure of "playing around something" to seem smart or look like a good player is often too tempting to consider any other option.
At Grand Prix New Jersey, I attacked an unflipped Delver of Secrets into a Stoneforge Mystic. It was effectively a bluff of Mutagenic Growth or Electrickery, but my attack was ultimately a hard read that he could not block.
Last week, I was 1-1 in a Modern Daily Event with Abzan Midrange. My opponent mulliganed to four in Game 1 and conceded, almost certainly hoping I wouldn't be able to sideboard against him. However, due to the amount of research I do, I recognized his screen name as someone who regularly plays Affinity. I made a hard read and brought in my Affinity package of things like Stony Silence and Creeping Corrosion.
If my opponent ended up not being on Affinity, I would likely be punished by having a deck with sub-optimal cards in it. However, there was little risk involved, as I would likely be left with sub-optimal cards in my deck if I didn't sideboard at all.
He was, indeed, on Affinity and my Turn 2 Stony Silence was great! Being able to make those decisions is a matter of risk versus reward, and because I saw that decision as such, it was easy to make. In a similar situation, some might be afraid to look foolish, but I've done enough foolish things that looking like a fool no longer scares me.
Some might say that it's results oriented or that I'm merely boasting about how great or smart I am, but that isn't the case. This is me trying to teach someone how to make better decisions. The decision you made or the end result isn't nearly as important as the process, because if you have a good process, that will lead you to more correct decisions in the future.
Using Your Mana
My decks typically come with a rule -- Use your mana every turn.
That might be simplistic, because clearly you'd want to use your mana every turn, but it's a rule that a lot of people don't go out of their way to follow.
During Time Spiral Block, I was doing particularly well with a five-color Mystical Teachings deck. One of my friends wanted to learn the deck for a PTQ, but he had never played anything like it before. I loaned him the deck on Magic Online and had him send me some logs from his games. One situation in particularly jumped out at me.
On Turn 2, he played a Prismatic Lens. On Turn 3, he played another Prismatic Lens instead of Mystical Teachings. His rationale was that he didn't have anything particular that he wanted to Teachings for, so he decided on developing his mana instead.
You should be spending your Turn 3 casting Mystical Teachings for another Mystical Teachings (or Careful Consideration) and play the other Prismatic Lens on a turn where you'd otherwise have an unspent mana, therefore making the Prismatic Lens "free." Instead of effectively Entombing for a Mystical Teachings, he spent his turn accomplishing something he could have accomplished for free a turn or two later.
If you've ever seen me play Shardless Sultai, you have never seen me with a mana left unspent. It's hard to categorize exactly how it helps you, because sometimes you're playing a weaker card on a turn you could be playing a stronger card, but if it means you're going to end up playing two spells next turn, it's generally worth it.
With Jeskai Flash, I would always play a shockland untapped on Turn 1 so that I could cast Thought Scour, even against aggressive decks. That two life mattered less in the scheme of things than cycling that Thought Scour into a relevant card. Sure, I'd be down two life, but if it meant that on Turn 4 I'd cycle Thought Scour and hit a Restoration Angel I could no longer cast, I'd end up taking more than two damage.
Similarly, I'd often play Augur of Bolas and a tapped land on Turn 3 rather than a Boros Reckoner if it meant I'd be able to cast Restoration Angel for value on Turn 4 and Boros Reckoner on Turn 5 with mana available to give it first strike. When they could no longer attack, I'd be able to use my unspent two mana to play an instant.
With Shardless Sultai, I might have the Brainstorm / Ancestral Vision / Shardless Agent combo in my hand on Turn 3, but I'd just cast a raw Shardless Agent instead. Sometimes getting on the board means more than getting value.
When you're missing out on these small advantages, they add up over time. You end up not getting the full potential from your deck.
Cast More Spells Than Your Opponent
Similar to the "use your mana every turn" mantra, I rarely play decks that are stuck casting one spell per turn, such as Abzan Midrange. If you ever fall behind, it can be difficult (if not impossible) to catch back up. As I mentioned earlier, there are certainly benefits to playing cards like Hero's Downfall and Utter End over something like Doom Blade or Murderous Cut, but it's a fine line.
If on Turn 4 you kill two creatures with a Bile Blight and Murderous Cut, you are much better off than if you just cast an Utter End or Hero's Downfall. However, those spells don't kill everything, so when you peel Bile Blight against their Stormbreath Dragon you're going to feel rather foolish. It's more of the same risk/reward that comes with any decision making, but I tend to err on the side of building a leaner deck.
It's a lot to digest, but the overall theme is that the little things matter. I tweak and tune for various reasons and most of the time it works out. Maybe I lose some matches here and there, but I'm often giving myself a better chance than if I copied a deck off the internet or just played with my favorite cards. Everyone has their own style that ultimately works best for them.
What I do probably isn't for everybody.