It's time for the Invitational. This weekend players from all over the country will convene at the Garden State Convention Center in order to fight for a laundry list of prizes and glory in the final SCG Tour® event of Season 2.
Normally I'm a pretty big proponent of doing whatever I can to try to learn something from each event. I care a lot about learning as much as possible from each tournament that I enter, with high-stakes tournaments (like the Star City Games® Invitational) being the exception. There, I want to win.
I want a slot at this year's Player's Championship. I want to be immortalized on a Shapeshifter token. I want an invite to the Pro Tour. I guess a $10,000 check would be something I wouldn't mind having as well.
There are a few different approaches to winning and I'm still having a bit of trouble deciding what the best way to do it is. I like to think of myself as someone with a reasonable range for playing different decks, but I want some time to really get together a great decklist and have some games under my belt before throwing myself into one of the most competitive tournaments Magic will see this year.
When actually narrowing what kind of deck to build or play, there tend to be four different approaches.
- Known Tier 1 deck
- Tier 1 deck with a slight twist on the archetype
- Deck that has a success rate highly dependent on the format around it (a metagame call)
- Brand new deck of your own creation (a brew)
Most deck choices are going to fall, at least loosely, within one of these options, and understanding the benefits and costs associated with each option lending itself to a better understanding of what aspects of tournament results are and aren't in one's control.
Known Tier 1 Deck
Playing the "best deck" oftentimes means putting oneself at a clear advantage over other players by doing exactly what the title "best deck" would imply. If a deck is considered the best in the format, it is because it has the highest average win-rate out of all the viable decks in the format.
Showing up to a tournament with the "bogeyman" of the format generally means that you are more likely to get free wins from people without dedicated plans for the matchup. Against less experienced players, the most powerful, streamlined deck will tend to do what the most powerful, streamlined deck does and do its powerful thing in an efficient fashion. “Best decks” of the format are decks that have been around for at least a few weeks while putting up reasonable results the entire time that they've been on the map.
To look at Standard, Bant Company has stuck around like a mouse that was given a cookie.
- 3 Duskwatch Recruiter
- 4 Reflector Mage
- 4 Selfless Spirit
- 4 Spell Queller
- 4 Sylvan Advocate
- 3 Tireless Tracker
- 2 Archangel Avacyn
- 1 Jace, Vryn's Prodigy
- 1 Nissa, Vastwood Seer
Bant Company has been written about time and time again, so I won't bore you with how the deck plays, but it falls under the umbrella of “known Tier 1 deck” and illustrates a point.
When entering a Standard tournament with Bant Company it feels good knowing that the archetype is tried and true, and even if there are some mistakes made along the way, the deck is powerful and likely forgiving [of mistakes] due to its power level.
It's a comforting feeling playing a matchup that is favorable for the Tier 1 archetype and navigating it without having much to worry about. That feeling is turned on its head when it comes to an unfamiliar mirror match.
When considering a deck and whether or not to pilot it, the complexity of the deck plays a big part when identifying if the mirror match is winnable. A mirror match for a linear combo deck may be easy due to the cards within the deck having little flexibility on their functionality, but what about the Bant Company mirror?
Sideboarding can be a nightmare for some mirrors and have levels upon levels of sideboarding strategies based on individual cards that are seen within a single game. Did the opponent leave in Lambholt Pacifist? Spell Queller loses power, as not casting spells on your turn is discouraged. Did the opponent have Thalia, Heretic Cathar? Bounding Krasis is embarrassing against a 3/2 with first strike.
Both of the aforementioned examples are relatively intuitive when put into words but harder to put together on the fly, doubly so when there are so many things condensed into single games of today's Standard.
Tier 1 Deck with a Twist
This is my favorite place to play Magic. The most recent example of such a concoction (that I had my fingerprint on) was the Naya Planeswalkers deck as a version of G/W Tokens slanted towards the mirror match:
This deck was effectively the then-dominating G/W Tokens deck with a couple of red cards thrown in the mix for strategic purposes. Most of the changes in the deck were already discussed in a different article, so I won't beat a dead horse. Instead I'll get on with the cost-benefit analysis of this approach.
These decks tend to have a large number of the same strengths and weaknesses associated with the original archetype, but finding the differences between the two is key, particularly when sideboarding.
To use the aforementioned Naya Planeswalkers deck as an example, the shaky mana means that the deck will oftentimes find itself stumbling by half a turn or so; it suffers a bit against the aggressive strategies as a result. This led to a slant in the sideboard towards aggressive decks and faster strategies that are able to capitalize on those minor fumbles.
Understanding what parts of the deck need a bit more compensation (in exchange for the advantages gained) helps justify the shift in percentages across the board for these unique takes on decks that are normally fairly cookie-cutter.
This week I ran a poll on Twitter with the various deck selection options being presented without decks or context to see what people like to see in Magic, and a twist on a format staple was the second most-picked option in the poll:
While the poll itself only partially impacts my decision-making,* this does indicate an interest that people have in twists on known decks being much higher than the rate they do well.
*I promise it is a very real part of my decision-making process. The people who support me are great and I want to repay that in whatever way I can.
The most recent twist on a format staple that I can't quite bring myself to pull the trigger on is Jeskai Control with Nahiri, the Harbinger and black cards.
This is something that I first started working on the weekend that Peter Ingram took the trophy with the first iteration of Jeskai Control with Nahiri. I had first talked about the possibility of a Mardu deck that utilized the synergies between Lingering Souls and Nahiri, the Harbinger with Jarvis Yu, but after a few hours I realized that I just wanted the Dark Confidants in the deck to be Snapcaster Mages.
This deck became slanted towards the Jeskai Control mirror and was almost impossible for midrange decks to beat. The biggest problem came from one mister Todd Stevens and his baby from that weekend:
- 4 Drowner of Hope
- 3 Eldrazi Displacer
- 4 Matter Reshaper
- 4 Noble Hierarch
- 4 Reality Smasher
- 4 Tarmogoyf
- 4 Thought-Knot Seer
- 1 World Breaker
My group's Jeskai decks were having an impossible time with the Bant Eldrazi deck, and it was hard to justify not making the switch. Jeskai Control with Nahiri may have the bonus of being a bit more proactive than the previous iterations of Jeskai Control, but the Tron matchup was still close to unwinnable and this version of Jeskai was much weaker against the decks that weren't reliant on creatures (Ad Nauseam combo, Scapeshift, etc.)
A Meta(game) Call
A metagame call (often shortened to "meta call") will have varying results that rely greatly on what decks are faced in the tournament. These decks tend to be a bit more linear or meant to answer a specific kind of deck.
For example, if a field for a Modern tournament is expected to be a plethora of creature-based aggressive decks, then Lantern Control with its Ensnaring Bridges may be a viable option for the tournament when it would otherwise be less desirable.
In the previously mentioned scenario, if the estimate is correct, the Lantern Control pilot will have a high number of consecutive positive matchups to mow over before making their way to the Top 8. Conversely, if they were wrong, then it could spell doom for the pilot.
Some decks can tend to be more popular choices while still having cards in the deck that make them anti-meta. Patrick Chapin made one of the wildest meta calls ever seen for States of yesteryear with his four-color control deck:
After Chapin played the deck, he wrote a fairly detailed article on his card choices, and it really makes sense in the context of that day's Standard format. Regardless of the thought that went into it, it's hard not to imagine Chapin getting his fair share of judge calls when he cast Flashfreeze during Game 1 of a tournament match of Magic.
In this case the call ended up working splendidly for Patrick, as he played against multiple Jund decks and control decks topping out at Broodmate Dragon and Cruel Ultimatum. He likely would've been singing a different tune about the deckbuilding decision, on the other hand, if he'd been paired against multiple decks that fell within Esper's chunk of the color wheel.
A brew can be even higher-variance than a meta call. Depending on the quality of testing or the matchups faced (and how close they fall to playtest sessions) a brand-new archetype can be a resounding success or a dismal failure that was completely ill-prepared for larger tournament-Magic.
A good portion of the draw towards brews is the ability to catch unsuspecting opponents off-guard with cards they weren't playing around or something so off-the-wall that they may not even know what the deck does.
A good portion of my prep for this Invitational has been theorycrafting and playtesting a creation of local friend and longtime teammate Jake Humphries:
- 3 Bedlam Reveler
- 4 Delver of Secrets
- 4 Monastery Swiftspear
- 3 Snapcaster Mage
- 1 Stormchaser Mage
- 1 Young Pyromancer
This style of strategy in particular lends itself to concealing information from the opponent and leveraging that into an advantage. The deck playing zero (count 'em: zero) counterspells in the maindeck, but it can bluff counterspells and gain a significant advantage against an opponent that is trying to jump through hoops that aren't there.
The deck still has bite to it against decks that just jam their cards into the countermagic, but the intangible value that is gained from opponents over-thinking every situation ends up being an invaluable tool. Humphries's ability to identify this in the abstract is impressive in-and-of itself, but applying it in a deck that can capitalize on the theory takes it to an entirely different level.
Using this kind of theory and applying to it brews when finding a hole to fill within the metagame is the best way to make a brew's first tournament a successful venture.
The biggest detractor from taking a brew to a tournament is that the deck will generally be less refined than a tried-and-true archetype that already exists within a format. Despite a netdeck being a first step for readers, it's important to remember that the decklist is likely Step 50 or more for the person who put up a result with the deck. Evolving a known quantity skips several steps in the deckbuilding process by putting an already-tuned version of a deck as a starting point for a building process.
The Most Powerful Method
This heading is a bit of a Catch-22 in that there isn't a best method that fits everybody. Each person has a different goal in mind when entering a tournament, and each category of deck fulfills a different kind of need.
If the goal is to do nothing more than be a student of the game, it is recommended to try to learn the best deck and exploit the mirror. Mirror matches as of late have been relatively skill-intensive with heaps of theory that go into maneuvering the mirror. It is rare that a single person stands head-and-shoulders above everybody else from the beginning to the end of a format with the best deck, and that has a lot to do with the amount of time that people will put into learning the deck.
Chris Andersen may have been the first person to put up results with G/W Tokens at the beginning of Shadows over Innistrad Standard, but it's hard to deny that Mike Sigrist was likely the best G/W Tokens player by the time the quarter had ended. A lot of this has to do with the effort that Sigrist put in to learning the mirror match and gaining a fundamental understanding of what was important in the mirror.
Maintaining this type of thought process over time will help build a rock-solid foundation to grow on as a player, even if it's painful at first.
When trying to decide what deck to play at any given tournament, be sure to evaluate what it is you are trying to get out of the tournament. If it's the only tournament you're going to play for a while and the only thing that matters is hoisting the cup at the end, consider a meta call. If you want to have fun and don't really care about the wins and losses, a brew may be just what the doctor ordered.
Regardless of motivation or justification for playing in a tournament, maximize the odds of you getting what you came for by making an objective decision during the deck selection process. Having fun is a reason to enter a tournament; so is trying to make money. What's your reason?