I've played a lot of decks in my day.
No, seriously. Different formats tend to be dominated by people who champion a single archetype and run with it. Don't get me wrong; I've been there. My first article on StarCityGames.com® was because I was incredibly proficient at a Standard deck.
Before I was a "known" player, I was writing articles for CardConfidants.com. The biggest article I ever had on the website included me referencing the fact that I jump from deck to deck too frequently. I still make this mistake today, but am lucky enough to not be punished as harshly for it as I used to be.
I'm much better at jumping from deck to deck than I used to be, and at this point I'd go as far as to say it's one of my biggest strengths as a player. My best finishes this year have been with an aggro deck…
…a midrange deck…
…a control deck…
…and a combo deck.
- 1 Taiga
In part it's because I'm a much better Magic player than I was at the beginning of 2016, but a good portion of it is that I understand Magic in a different way. When I started writing this article last week, I wanted to get inside the heads of other people and gain an understanding of where people struggled when learning a new deck.
Working on my article for this week, and I want to know-— Emma Handy (@Em_TeeGee) May 29, 2017
What's the hardest part of picking up a new deck? What gives you the most trouble?
It seemed to light a fire in the Twitterverse in a big kind of way and there was a lot of feedback. In the interest of including as much information as possible, I'm just going to answer as many of the responses as possible!
Assigning my role (eg. Who's the beatdown) aka "Why I always play control"— Anders Thiesen (@Thiesenmagic) May 29, 2017
Role assignment isn't remotely as clear as it used to be. Our own Jadine Klomparens recently had a fantastic article on the nuances of matchup assessment, but the short version can generally be summed up by trying to figure out who benefits from a longer game.
Using some of the more extreme examples in the game, if you look at the top ten cards of a Mono-White Humans library versus the top ten cards of a Temur Aetherworks library, it's going to be clear that the top cards of the Marvel deck are more powerful but require more time to be played. This means that the Mono-White Humans deck is going to take the role of the aggressor in the matchup.
Obviously the water is going to be muddier when evaluating decks that are closer to the middle of what is going on, but the common idea is understanding which deck is doing something more powerful. Magic having mana costs work in the way that they do means that the more powerful things will have a higher mana cost. This translates to the lower-power cards needing to try to kill the more powerful deck before the opposing higher card quality can take over the game.
The other side of that is figuring out which deck will benefit the most from multiple untap steps or just being given time. Despite a card like Ishkanah, Grafwidow being generally more powerful than Gideon, Ally of Zendikar, if the Gideon is given enough time, it will eventually creature more bodies than Ishkanah and outclass it.
Similarly, this means that the "fair" creature decks tend to have to get aggressive against the planeswalker decks due to the inevitably associated with planeswalkers being on the battlefield for multiple turns at a time.
Applying these theories to various matchups helps determine how one should be positioning their cards and sequencing their spells against a matchup that may be unknown.
I tend to mulligan more aggressively than most, but generally speaking, knowing whether or not a hand is a keep depends on knowing what the deck is trying to do.
A control deck with four or five lands is likely a reasonable keep because land drops are so important; an aggressive strategy that needs a pile of early threats isn't going to want to keep a hand that contains four lands.
In that same vein, knowing the number of cards that a deck needs in order to function and how much card advantage is in the deck is going to lend itself to making more informed mulligan decisions overall.
Most mulligan decisions with newer decks, particularly in older formats, pertain to….
About a year ago I wrote an article about sequencing in the earlier game and its applications in Standard. The further back we go in Magic's history, the more powerful the decks become and the more condensed the games are. This leads to the first turn in older formats being so much more important than it would be in something like Standard or Limited.
A lot of breaking down early-game decisions lies in understanding the purpose of different cards in a deck and knowing the deck's role against a majority of matchups. Other times it may be more clear-cut and just be about understanding which cards are more likely to have broader applications as the game continues.
The most common choice between similar Modern spells to cast on the first turn is between Inquisition of Kozilek and Thoughtseize. Generally speaking, it is going to be correct to lead on Inquisition of Kozilek, the reason being that Thoughtseize will have more a wider range of spells that it can hit as the game continues, where Inquisition of Kozilek may only be able to hit the first spell or two that the opponent was planning on casting.
At the risk of sounding like a broken record by plugging the same author twice, Jadine Klomparens wrote an article just a couple of days ago that details what goes into differentiating the importance of threats versus disruption, building one's own position versus interfering with the opponent's.
In decks that plan to disrupt the opponent while applying pressure, it is going to be paramount to make sure that there is a threat already developed onto the battlefield in order to have something that can complement the disruptive elements of the strategy. Put that Glistener Elf on the table and then back it up with Spell Pierce instead of just indefinitely holding up a counterspell without a threat.
In a deck that is looking to lock the opponent out of the game before playing a threat that will end the game quickly, it's absolutely critical to resolve Chalice of the Void for one instead of putting Eldrazi Mimic on the table.
Different archetypes have plans that vary from opening hand to opening hand, and a majority of questions about play patterns and sequencing are going to be answered after just a few games with the deck. Things to the effect of "I need to suspend Ancestral Vision as early as possible instead of casting Serum Visions on the first turn" will feel natural and won't require conscious thought.
Sideboarding. It's one thing to get what a deck does but understanding why those cards are there for specific matchups is challenging.— Shawn Knapp (@CiscoShawn) May 30, 2017
I recently had an incredibly in-depth discussion about sideboarding with a person I was coaching, and it ended up with us going through every single matchup in Standard and evaluating each card in their deck to determine its value in the matchup. The summary I gave them at the end of the lesson was, "If a card matches up poorly against pivotal parts of their archetype, or is likely to make it feel like you 'got got,' you should try to find something else to put in the maindeck out of your sideboard."
A good portion of developing as a player is just establishing mental shortcuts and implementing them in as many situations as applicable. Sideboarding is one of those times, and to look at a few things in my intangible checklist when it comes to sideboarding…
- If a card is likely going to rot in your hand during a game, it's going to be better served sitting the second and third games out; think removal spells against creatureless control decks.
- If a card is in your deck to perform a specific function and that function won't be utilized, find something better; Blossoming Defense isn't really worth much against an opponent playing very few removal spells.
- If a card matches up poorly against something that a deck is known to lean in, get it out for something that leads to better Magic; don't keep in Veteran Motorist against Walking Ballista.
For bringing cards in, it's going to look like the inverse of a majority of these points. Bringing in cards that are regularly useful, that perform a specific function that a matchup calls for, or that match up well against what the opponent is trying to do (think Ethersworn Canonist against spell-based combo decks) are the basic function of sideboarding.
When evaluating cards one-by-one within a deck against a certain archetype, remember to keep in mind how cards match up against the opposing cards when they're on the play versus on the draw (read: when a turn behind the opponent versus being a turn ahead).
Expanding on this a bit further, Spell Queller is generally going to be a more powerful card on the draw than it is going to be on the play. The reason for this is because eating the opponent's four-drop is going to be more powerful than eating their three-drop, and on the draw, it is a natural curve for the opponent to try to use all of their mana on the fourth turn…or Time Walk themselves by playing around the Spell Queller. As a result, a deck sideboarding Spell Quellers to try to beat midrange decks with some disruptive threats is more likely to want to max out on Spell Queller when they're on the draw.
For me, it's making sure you don't get tilted when playing. New decks are hard, and tilt is real.— Justin Anglero (@Gurmag_Anglero) May 29, 2017
Remember that you're learning. Nobody came out of the womb knowing how to pilot every single deck in the game of Magic, and mistakes happen. Sometimes it's out of ignorance, and that's fine. Sometimes it's out of laziness or playing too quickly; that's okay too! Tilt is real and it's easy to find yourself feeling some combination of embarrassment and frustratration at a new deck.
The best advice I can give on this is to try to prioritizing the education that comes with learning a new deck over the results that may or may not come with picking something new up. If the primary initiative is learning something new, it's easy to remain consistently successful by a metric that is personally satisfying; trust me.
Pulling It Together
Is there a specific trend that seems to stick out in these descriptions? Play more Magic!
All these questions tend to answer themselves by just getting reps upon reps upon reps with a deck. When learning a deck, don't be afraid to experiment with different sideboard plans or sequences for the sake of education. High-level tournaments aren't always going to be the best training grounds, but when playing games with a friend or playtesting on Magic Online, trying things that may seem a bit more "out there" will either confirm that the line was a little too out there and you were right in the first place, or else teach you something new about a deck and help you acclimate yourself with archetype- or format-specific play patterns.
For #SCGCHAR, I plan to either pick up a brand-new archetype or put a twist on a deck in my wheelhouse. Picking up a brand-new archetype or new decklist just a few days before a tournament may be an unrealistic undertaking for those less familiar with the muscles to flex when learning a new deck. But for me, it's just Tuesday.