I've recently been dealing with a severe case of writer's block. For the past month, I've been trying to write articles about how I approach Standard. After five half-written articles I realized I was trying to bite off more than I could chew. My "secrets" in Standard are really just countless lessons I have taught myself over the span of years. Dredging them all up at once has caused me to never find the best way to get it all out in a coherent way. That's when I asked myself…
"What would The Dizzler do?"
Instead of trying to write about everything I knew, I would simply ask people what they wanted to know about. I asked people on Twitter and Facebook what they wanted to learn about, and the floodgates opened up. Today I'm going to go over as many of the responses as possible and try my best to help anyone listening on how to step their game up.
Well, if it involves Standard.
First up on our list is an aspiring pro all the way from Brazil. He most recently had a string of great finishes with Esper Dragons on the Grand Prix circuit and will almost certainly make a major splash on the big stage now that he's qualified:
" Do you believe that in this Standard format it's better to pick a style of deck and stick to it so that you can master it, or is it better to adapt every week with a new deck even with limited experience with it?"
This question is rather timeless in Magic, which makes it a great one to kick things off with today. First of all, the answer to this question fluctuates. I would have to go with "play what you know" when it comes to inflexible formats like Modern and Legacy. Rarely do we hear stories about players who picked an unfamiliar deck the night before an event do exceptionally well, yet we often hear about the proficient experts constantly posting quality results.
The answer to this question in Standard is a bit more convoluted. Success stories come from both ends of the spectrum. I've found ample amounts of success bringing something new to the table week in and week out. Not just new archetypes I've brewed, but existing archetypes that were new to me. The only problem is I believe I fall in the "play what you know" category. Each time, I spent countless hours in preparation to understand the deck I'm going to play. Most times after testing, I considered myself proficient enough with the deck to be a source of information on it even though I've never played it in a tournament. Very few times have I actually played a deck without experience. The only time I can actually remember playing a deck with limited testing was Abzan Aggro at the last Pro Tour where I had my best overall Constructed finish of all time.
Like I said, it's a bit convoluted.
Honestly, I believe the answer is in each and every one of us. Cliche' I know, but it's true. Everyone knows their own strengths and limitations but lacks the courage to pull the trigger on what they believe is the correct decision. It's difficult to go out of your comfort zone since it's so easy to talk yourself into staying in it. The "what if" sentences start pouring in, and you snap back into just playing the deck you are comfortable with regardless of whether it is the correct choice or not. Fear ends up having the final say.
Now if I may twist your question ever so slightly, I do believe people think they need to change decks too often. I know this sounds strange coming from the guy who plays something different week in and week out, but the reasons to change decks are pretty simple. Either you believe you found something poised to make a deep run in the following week, or you feel that the deck you are currently playing isn't going to perform well.
The week that Paulo won the Grand Prix was also the weekend everyone thought Esper Dragons was a bad choice. It hadn't yet been proven that it was though. The fear of something new coming into the metagame isn't a good enough reason to put a deck down. If you like the deck you are playing, and it has proven its worth, don't set it down until the metagame shifts have already happened. This might cause for one bad weekend here or there, but it is better than playing something new in hopes that your paranoia comes to fruition.
Our next question comes from yet another Grand Prix Champion.
@fffreakmtg Which are the most important traps to avoid in Standard Deck selection? From a competitive point of view.— Javier Dominguez (@Thalaiet) May 12, 2015
There are many pitfalls to watch out for when it comes to deck selection, but the most important one to avoid is a deck's malleability. Obviously this is a biased standpoint since linear strategies have always done well throughout the existence of the game, but personally, I believe they are too high variance. I often times play "midrange" strategies, but I like to characterize my deck selection as malleable. Decks that might not have the most powerful cards or strategies but will always give me the flexibility to make multiple decisions throughout the games and while sideboarding. Odds are this preference of mine has a major role in my dominance of the swiss rounds of Grand Prix over the past couple years, but it is also the culprit for why I often times am manhandled in those Top 8s. My final opponents are very competent with their decks, which so happen to also be filled with powerful cards that got them there.
Our next question comes from Twitter user zmj and so happens to be one that many have had on their mind.
@fffreakmtg Current Standard: enchantments versus Dromoka's Command. How do you approach cards like Courser while deck building?— zmj (@zmj) May 12, 2015
Dromoka's Command has had quite the impact on Standard since Dragons of Tarkir was first released. The card has done such a good job that it has almost invalidated any deck that revolved around enchantments. Pretty much the only two that are left in the metagame are Courser of Kruphix and Mastery of the Unseen.
Both of these cards can be found in strategies that gear themselves towards preying on decks that utilize Dromoka's Command the best. Currently I believe we have a very healthy balance between enchantments and Dromoka's Command. We might eventually see a time that Outpost Siege and Whip of Erebos have a chance to steal a weekend or two, but that will not happen until the format pushes Abzan Aggro out of its dominance, and I don't foresee that happening for quite some time.
While on the topic of Abzan Aggro, Andrew Jaeger has a couple questions about some little green men.
@fffreakmtg how did you find den protecter in abzan aggro? Is it worth main-boarding? Also are wardens all that good in the deck? Thanks!— Andrew Jaeger (@AndrewJaeger6) May 12, 2015
I hated the Den Protectors. In theory they seemed great, but in practice they proved to be bad. Playing them was actually the first time in a long time I broke a rule I had in place, which was "don't try to play their game." My sideboard wasn't malleable enough to the point I had to bring them in against other Den Protector decks, yet they were slightly more controlling, making the matchup more difficult. I needed cards that broke the matchup wide open, not cards that simply kept up with their card advantage.
I might not have loved the protectors, but Warden of the First Tree is fantastic in the deck. He might not be the whole package in the early stages of the game, but few cards have won me as many games as that little guy in lategame top deck wars. The card can win the most unimaginable games sometimes. I would never want to play more than two due to how low impact it can be sometimes, but I would have to be convinced that playing 1-2 isn't correct.
"What happened to Jeskai Aggro?"
- Brandon Reginbald
The Standard Super League may have answered that question for him, but I will do my best to give it a crack anyway.
Jeskai Aggro was a deck that got humiliated by Chris VanMeter's G/R Dragons deck. Not only that, but Jeskai Aggro has never done better than 50% against Abzan-based decks. Right now it is poised for a comeback, but Abzan Control is as well, which could make it more difficult for that deck to run the tables. Only time will tell if the masters of Jeskai give it another crack, but it will take some fine deckbuilding to bring this one back from the grave. I do believe it is possible though.
"Why is Temur never played?"
- Brandon Vaughan
Temur just isn't as good as the other color combinations. It mostly is due to the Temple, tri-land, fetchland manabases we have to work with, but another strong reason is that the deck doesn't have a card so powerful that the three color manabase is worth it. The removal isn't that great, which forces the deck to be tempo-based in a format that tempo isn't that great in. The archetype doesn't even have good two-drops. All-in-all, Temur is flawed. I don't know if this was on purpose from Wizards, or if the other decks were built differently in FFL, but Temur got the short end of the stick in Khans of Tarkir and we just have to accept that.
Speaking of bad deck choices, one of my teammates and StarCityGames premium writers chimed in on Twitter about the topic.
@fffreakmtg In the past 2-3 years, what have your worst deck choices been and what lead to each of them?— Ari Lax (@armlx) May 12, 2015
I could sit here and list off each and every one, but that would be far too time-consuming since they all have one thing in common: The worst deck choices I have made have been those on the aggressive spectrum. Now when I say aggressive, I don't mean decks labeled as "Aggro." In my opinion Aggro, Midrange, and Control are ways to label decks, but they don't do them justice in defining them. The way I see it is, there are decks that try to go under the metagame, through it, or over it. Abzan Aggro for example isn't going under anyone. That deck is busting down walls harder than The Juggernaut.
I have had the worst experiences when playing decks that try to go under the metagame. Whenever I used to play them, they always seemed like a great choice, but they always underperformed in practice. The reason for this is that decks like this never give me the wiggle room to outplay my opponents. Sure, they can make mistakes and lose because of them, but I never feel like I get to play circles around them. Sideboarding for them is simple, and you rarely can "get them" in anyway.
The reason why I would play decks like this is because my general sense of where the metagame was at was skewed. I most likely had an inbred testing process and trusted the results more than how the games actually felt. I would always go into these tournaments with a ton of confidence but would end up picking up just enough losses to have a middling finish. I never felt like I could win the event once it was underway.
Steve Cahill hits it on the head with this question. Am I a Da Vinci or an Einstein?
@fffreakmtg Do you have a generic repeatable framework in which you select a standard deck? That is, how much is science vs art?— Steve Cahill (@NegativeWon) May 12, 2015
My answer is both. There are things I constantly recreate and then there are things I just feel. The subconscious brain is something we have yet to (and may never) fully understand, but one thing that is for certain is that I trust mine. No matter how absurd it sounds sometimes, I will always go with what my gut is telling me. I always have and always will.
Most of the time this "super power" is telling me certain cards that will be good, or what deck will most likely be underplayed or underperform, but that is when the science of it all comes in. Once I believe in whatever I believe in, I start to crunch the numbers. I figure out, whether logically or intuitively, what deck will most likely both underperform as well as be underplayed, and then I look at the metagame without it. "What becomes the best deck if this deck doesn't exist?" I ask myself. I free up multiple slots in the deck I have concluded on that were dedicated to that matchup, and all of a sudden I have an archetype that becomes malleable and well-positioned against the rest of the field.
Sometimes this comes back to bite me if I am wrong, but that rarely happens. Whether it is luck or skill in metagaming, I seldom play the matchup I planned on ignoring.
Metagaming is vital to a player's success in Magic, and Open Series superstar Kevin Jones is here to ask if deckbuilding with the expected quality of opponents in mind is a reasonable thing to do.
"Is deckbuilding with the expected quality of opponents in mind a reasonable thing to do?"
- Kevin Jones
Of course it is! The metagame and quality of players often goes hand-in-hand. Professional level events are often filled with players that have access to exactly what they want to play. They are also the most dense with skilled players. This skews the metagame into a more "controlling" environment. Take the Open Series Invitationals for example. These events are littered with high level players that needed to qualify for the event. With that comes many more Midrange to Control archetypes. This metagame will be much different than a local FNM or IQ.
I tend to make my decks slightly more reactive in lower level events so I have wiggle room to out maneuver my opponents. I do the opposite in tournaments like the Pro Tour to make sure that I can put pressure on my opponents when I am matched in skill level. I want the option to go beatdown when matched in skill level mostly due to the odds that my removal won't line up well against their new technology. There is a reason why you rarely see me without Goblin Rabblemaster or Siege Rhino in my deck!
Speaking of switching gears on my opponents, Jacob Aunstrup's question hits it out of the park!
@fffreakmtg How important is it to sideboard differently when on the play, rather than on the draw? And to what extend?— Jacob Aunstrup (@JAunstrup) May 13, 2015
Sideboarding differently on the play or draw is crucial in Standard. Cards gain or lose value depending on play or draw, and it is vital to your success to be able to differentiate them. Not just in what cards are good or bad, but whether or not your gameplan should stay the same.
Sideboarding is also where most players will gain edges in Standard. Obviously playing well is important, but having the right tools and strategies will also aid in doing well in a long event. The only problem is trying to teach people how to sideboard correctly in the abstract is difficult.
To actually improve at sideboarding without the aid of sideboard guides from your favorite writers, you need to be focused on understanding how the games play out. Much like homework from high school, you just have to lay out your deck and go over all the iterations of potential sideboard strategies with all the matchups in mind. It sounds way more boring than playtesting, but it is something I do with each deck I play. I just stare at my MTGO screen and constantly move cards around and write out sideboard guides. This not only helps me understand how to sideboard on the play and draw, but it allows me to find holes in the current version of my deck. Often times this process will help change 2-3 cards in my deck or give me the breakthrough I have been looking for.
Once the process is done, I take the deck to the tournament, do well, and people think I am some kind of omniscient being when it comes to Standard. In all actuality, I just put in much more work than others and have for some time. Years of assiduity have put me in a position where I don't need to go over each and every process from deck to deck. I have done this with so many similar decks that I've created shortcuts, naturally causing the process to take less and less time with each new deck.
So to answer your question Jacob, yes it is critical for you to sideboard differently on the play and draw. This fish is just too complex for me to give you. The secret isn't in the fishing pole, but in the patience of the fisher. Magic is a fun and engaging game, but to excel one must put the work into it. Sometimes the things you are doing for Magic makes it feel less and less like a game, but the hard work does pays off. I can promise you that.
The last question from Jeremy Peterson may very well be the most important of them all.
@fffreakmtg You seem to do amazing in Standard. Question: are you an actual wizard?— Jeremy Peterson (@artefakt_land) May 12, 2015
That's all I have for this week. Standard is such an interesting format that this article didn't even scratch the surface of how deep the rabbit hole goes. I would love to do another Standard Mailbag article in the near future if that would be something you wonderful guys and gals would be interested in. Please submit more questions below thatwill allow me to go even deeper into the wonderful world of Standard!