Sullivan Library - The Best Deck
Recently Patrick Chapin came out this way for a quick visit. His actual destination was Milwaukee-land – he was going to attend a pirate-themed wedding – but once you’re about eight hours of driving from home adding in another hour plus change doesn’t actually hurt so much. In between political debates conversations about his latest attempt to purchase chicken and just all around catching up we spent a little bit of time playing Magic. Eventually a few other people came over to play and before long the room was full of games.
Patrick asked one player current Wisconsin State Champ Collin LaFleur on the fence about what to play the classic question:
“Why not just play the best deck in the format?”
For Patrick anyone who knows him knows that this is currently going to be a call to play Five-Color Control. As Brian Kowal would say later that night “I would ask you your opinion on this matchup Chapin but I know you’ll just say Five-Color wins…”
In many ways Patrick is right. Five-Color Control is likely the best deck in the format in some form or another. It probably occupies that role by virtue of being the best controlling deck in the metagame right now. Whereas Faeries probably used to be the best deck Five-Color Control at least by the numbers has that honor now.
The classic tension between Power and Synergy that the Faeries/Five-Color Control matchup used to represent is gone now largely by virtue of the tools that Five-Color Control has. If you want to call it positioning that’s fair. The simple fact is that Five-Color has a lot of tools that are inherently problematic for Faeries. Faeries has the ability to adapt of course. Make no mistake though Faeries with Red while still powerful is giving away at least some element of what makes it so powerful: the continuously self-empowering synergies. Whether it is Lightning Bolt or Firespout these cards are being played for their inherent power and not for their synergy.
Here’s the thing about this changeover; it definitely gives the deck an answer that you want to have to an actual factual big new problem: the Great Sable Stag. It also means however that your cards in your deck are all less powerful. One of the things that makes Faeries so daunting for example is the access to 11 or 12 actually reasonable counters. Each and every Faerie makes each and every Faerie more potent. The easiest place to “cheat” on the synergy aspect is with your choice of elimination be it Doom Blade or Agony Warp or what-have-you. Moving towards Bolt in these slots is less problematic than cutting other cards but adds to the difficulties of free-flowing mana. It’s not without reason that writer and player after writer and player were openly mocking people that were playing Faerie Conclave of all things. Why? Because it came into played tapped and that could make all of the difference when it came to your critical development within a game.
When Faeries was king though there really weren’t many reasons to not play Faeries. I played it in a single PTQ during the Block season and immediately kicked it to the curb. The big reason for me was resources. I watched the top tables play out at one Chicago PTQ and it was clear to me that I was outclassed in the Faerie mirror. The people playing it were playing it beyond where I was playing it. I remember watching a match that Sam Black lost and it being so clear to me that I couldn’t play it. His opponent had the Bitterblossom and Sam was relatively mana-screwed and yet he knew how to pilot his awful hand such that he came within a breath of winning anyway. His opponent for his part wasn’t being a slouch by any means either; had he made a small error Sam would have taken it. No I thought I can’t play this deck if I hope to win a PTQ. In between running around the convention (Wizard Con) that was going on around me and meeting Lou Ferrigno I watched the other decks to see what I might want to play. Watching Mehran Latif’s Merfolk deck I knew I had something I could pilot a deck that could reward my play skill and a deck that wouldn’t require me to be better in the mirror all day. I almost went the whole way too but I was stopped by Justin Meyer who managed to just barely beat me on the back of multiple Oona. Alas.
The big reason I didn’t play Faeries is that I didn’t think I could pilot it given the most precious of limited resources: time. If I’d had more time playing Faeries absolutely would have been the best call. I would just have had to sit down and run game after game match after match board-plan after board-plan until I knew exactly what to expect and how to do anything in most any situation.
This choice was exacerbated by the environment. There are multiple metagames in any tournament of a reasonable size. One of the metagames that I like to talk about I call the “Winner’s Metagame.” The metagame at large is what you can expect from all of the decks in the field. It doesn’t necessarily tie into what is actually winning at an event though. The “Winner’s Metagame” is the metagame that is going to exist at the top of the field throughout the tournament. In any tournament if you’re doing well you’ll probably play against both elements of the meta but if you hope to win it unless you plan on getting lucky you also have to be well-prepared for the “Winner’s Metagame.” These different elements of the meta are what are at play when people make the distinction between being prepped to make a Top 8 as compared to being prepped to win a Top 8.
For a large swathe of Standard (and Lorwyn Block) the Winner’s Metagame was basically this:
20ish% Five-Color Control
<10% other stuff
In this metagame playing Faeries if you’re well-practiced is a great call. Assuming that Faeries is as consensus seems to say the best deck getting good at it means that you’re going to be highly rewarded. If you’re simply a better player than your opponent with a better plan you’re going to have a big edge in a lot of these games (though many would claim in that matchup not all by a long shot). If you’re playing against one of the other matchups that are ridiculously common you can have a well-prepared board to be able to have the edge. If you’re playing against one of the other decks in the room that is not particularly common it is likely that you’ll just overpower them on the strength of your deck’s sheer power. And for the sake of argument let’s assume that it isn’t the best deck in the room but that some new previously unexplored deck is. Well odds are very good that you will never play against that player as they’ll represent at most less than 2% of the metagame and probably less than that.
On the other hand if we’re looking at a metagame that is far more diverse like the well-documented “Winner’s Metagame” from the Minnesota $5k many of these arguments go out the window.
15% - Faeries
13% - Jund Cascade
13% - Black/White Tokens
8% - Reveillark
6% - Green/White Overrun
6% - Swans
4% - Five-Color Cascade
4% -Naya-Jund Cascade Control
4% - Doran Junk
4% - Kithkin
4% - Elves
4% - Boat Brew
4% - Red(/X)
2% - Five-Color Control
2% - Elementals
2% - Bant
2% - Elves!!!
2% - Other
Here you’ll have to have played five rounds to have had more than an even chance of even seeing a Faeries deck. Heck after 6 rounds you’ll still have a more than 35% chance of not seeing the most popular deck in the tournament and almost a 45% chance of not seeing Jund Cascade. When you start talking about a truly uncommon deck like Five-Color Control (in that meta) by the end of 8 rounds you’re still talking about an 85% chance of not playing against it.
What were the reasons for not playing the “best” deck before? With practice you could win the “best deck” mirror. Well now you’re not actually too likely to even play against it. If you’re playing against another almost-best deck you could have a well-prepared sideboard for it. Now you could focus that much but it might be to the detriment of your matchups versus 60-80% of the field; more general answers rather than more specific answers are likely to give you higher returns. If you’re playing against the uncommon decks you’re likely to simply overpower them right? Well the reason the metagame has become so diverse is that there is a truly large pool of fantastic decks. Just because you aren’t playing against one of the say nine most popular decks it does not mean that you’re playing against something terrible. In fact it is quite likely that the deck is very powerful in its own right even if it is more uncommon. And while if there is some unknown new best deck things haven’t changed that much the impact of that similar situation isn’t actually anything that changes the situation in your favor now; it’s just similarly difficult.
Metagames like this actually deeply encourage you to play decks that you are good at. Not all of us have the play skill to be good at every aspect of Magic. Brian Kowal for example notoriously likes to play decks that create complicated board positions. One of the reasons is that they give his opponent the potential to make mistakes on boards that he is more likely to be comfortable with (this is also a reason that he has traditionally leaned towards mid-range decks which often create such situations by their very nature). One of the reasons I’ve often shied away from pure beatdown decks is that I occasionally worry about situations where subtle choices can make the difference between a win or a loss. Is it better to put down that Bramblewood Paragon on turn 2 or the Wren’s Run Vanquisher? So many factors are at play when you try to answer that question and I’m not always confident that I’ll know which way to lean.
Diversity takes away the value of pinpoint answers. Wispmare is a great card in certain decks for example in a world where there are a ton of Faeries that you can expect to take have make it shine. But in the Minnesota $5k metagame it will have value against maybe 38% of the lists (Faeries Kithkin Black/White Tokens Swans) and only truly strong value against much less (Faeries and Swans – 21%). Instead you are going to be rewarded for more general answers. Firespout can kill creatures. Glen Elendra Archmage is good against Cryptic Command. Snakeform is good in creature battles. Volcanic Fallout is good against Weenies and Faeries. Great Sable Stag is good against Faeries and kinda good against Blue in general but not incredible.
As metas shift along that continuum from very diverse to incredible homogenous the distinction between the correct call of playing the best deck to playing the deck you’re best at becomes more difficult. As I told Jimmie Linville recently the metagame of the time was “maybe 25% Five-Color Control maybe 20% various Bloodbraid Elf aggro decks (three four or maybe all five colors) maybe 15% Red-based decks running Figure of Destiny and Bolts and the rest of the 40% being a mix of everything and I mean everything.” This call looked at the time pretty correct. It was into this metagame that Patrick suggested to Collin that he play Five-Color Control.
This worked out pretty well for Collin. He made Top 4 before being taken out by Aaron Dettman piloting Kowal’s Zoo deck that Jacob van Lunen has made so popular. At the same time with a field that looked to be 25% Five-Color Control only one of them made Top 8. This isn’t because Five-Color Control was bad but because so many decks are so good.
I didn’t make Top 8 that day. I played the last round against a friend likely out of contention based on records; he was about 90% likely to make the cut if he won and I was something like just less than 20% likely to make it. It all depended on how all of the other matches in contention played out. If it came to a draw I told him I would concede rather than kill us both but he vanquished me fair and square but still got the short end of the straw and ended up 9th. I was unhappy all day with one of the sideboard cards I allowed myself to be talked into but I’m not unhappy that I played Merfolk at all. It all boils down to a phone call I got from Patrick after he’d driven away to go to an FNM:
“You know Adrian I hope you didn’t feel disheartened with all of the grief I was giving you about not playing [Five-Color Control]. Merfolk is the right deck for you. I watched you play it I played against you and with that deck I think the question isn’t usually going to be ‘Will you Top 8?’ but ‘Will you win the whole thing?’ It’s a really good deck and I can see how you’d have great game against anything. It’s a good choice.”
If you’ve come to know Patrick you know that he can often hold some strong views. I know without a doubt that he views Five-Color Control as the right call right now. And he has every reason to. It’s a great deck and it gets to play some of the best spells in the game right now. There is a certain kind of crunch that you can be put at trying to figure out how to attack into or play creatures into Plumeveil and Volcanic Fallout; Cryptic Command is incredible and a resolved Cruel Ultimatum often spells the end of the game.
But I think it says something when such a stalwart proponent of the deck and of the “best deck” concept in general advocated that I play something else. Coming up with which deck to play is a mutable question and it can’t always simply be said “play the best deck.” Sometimes it is absolutely correct to go ahead and play it even if it is well-prepared for but there are also times when the answer is not so clear cut.
I’ve only got a few shots left. I’ll probably be playing Merfolk. I’m sure that many people will sling up the best deck. And there’s nothing wrong with that.
P.S. Here is the deck Chapin helped convince Collin to play: