I'll Take The Gun, Thanks
Selecting a deck for a tournament. Easy?
Sure. All you need to do is copy a list off the Internet (hopefully one you have the cards for). If you know how to run it a little bit even better.
Actually wrong. The 75 cards you bring to a Constructed tournament is one of the biggest predictors of how well you'll do at that tournament. Possibly even as significant as how good a technical player you are.
Nevertheless if you ask ten players at a PTQ why they picked the deck they're playing you'll get ten answers like this:
"I just like Mono-Black Control."
"I played it last season. It's still good right?"
"My friend told me to. And he totally once beat some pro."
"I know it's probably bad but I like being unpredictable."
You see every deck in a format is not roughly as good as any other. Some are simply better than others. A couple are outright bad. Others have problems in popular matchups. Some are powerful but easily hated out by commonly played sideboard cards. Only a golden few are both very good and under the radar.
Those are the decks you want to be running. Winning a tournament is never as simple as picking up Burn the day before and hoping to get lucky.
A lot of players just aren't aware of this. They play decks without thought. Their testing process is flawed or frequently nonexistent. If I had to pick one reason the top pros consistently succeed at the highest level it would be this. Deck choice is crucial and often overlooked.
The Three Worst Reasons to Play a Deck
3. "It's all I have the cards for."
To some extent this is reasonable. If you're playing Modern at Friday Night Magic where first prize is $50 store credit you might as well bring that Reanimator brew you already have sleeved up. There's not a lot of point shelling out $300 for a playset of Tarmogoyfs if you only play Modern once every three months.
But once you get to the next level—the PTQs the SCG Open Series and the GPs—this argument starts falling flat. (I'd like to hope no one has ever used it at the Pro Tour. You're playing for $40 000; you can afford that Sword of War and Peace. No no really go on. Treat yourself.)
If you find yourself saying this on a regular basis you need to take a step back and ask yourself an important question:
How much do I want to win?
If playing a PTQ is something you do every few months on your weekends off fine. If you travel to a SCG Open Series or GP every weekend and they represent your dream of making it to the next level not fine. Not fine at all. You're not giving yourself the best possible chance to win every match. You're handicapping yourself right from the start.
Look I know about rent and food and university fees and Jace the Mind Sculptor and Geist of Saint Traft. I know. But if investing in the best deck for a tournament wins you even one more match than you would have otherwise you may have already made that money back and you still have those Geist of Saint Trafts! If it's a GP or a SCG Open Series you might have an extra $100 or $200 or $500. If it's a PTQ you may have a shiny new blue envelope. Ultimately you have to spend money to make money.
If you want to get to the highest level you have to give yourself the best possible chance to win every match. And if you're playing an inferior deck because it's too much effort to get something better together you're not doing that. It's really that simple.
2. "It's what I always play."
Again this argument seems superficially quite reasonable. After all if you've put in the hours with a certain deck or with a particular archetype you'll know the ins and outs. You'll know how the matchups go and how to sideboard. You'll remember the cards that people often side against you. All these things add up and get you percentage points you'd miss out on if you audibled to Mono-Green at the last minute.
But it has a darker side as well. If you only ever play the one deck you'll never diversify and learn a broader Magical skill-set. This has consequences particularly in Limited where you have to know how to play whatever comes to you. You also never gain the ability to look at a matchup from several different angles which is a valuable asset regardless of which side of the table you typically sit on. In my experience people who always play the same or similar decks tend to be stodgy incurious and generally not great at the game.
Another problem is that sometimes "your" deck might be an awful choice. The Standard metagame shifts every week and a metagame-defining deck one week is a dud the next. In this case what do you do? You don't know how to play anything else. You gain percentage points from knowing your list really well but you lose a ton more from the metagame being extremely hostile.
It's a common dilemma. Tell me if you've been in this scenario. You'd put in a lot of effort to tune this one deck; initially the results were amazing but as you cooled off a bit they became merely good. Still you'd spent lots of time tuning it and you were very comfortable with your list so you were still sold on taking it to the GP.
That's when things started to go sour.
People started catching on to that one new deck that happened to be a terrible matchup. Or sideboard cards for you started becoming much more common. Or you were just losing a lot more and you couldn't figure out why. It got to a couple days before the tournament and you had no idea what to do. Play the deck even though you'd lost confidence in it? Or audible to something new and untested that you had no experience with?
There's no one right answer for this scenario but I do think that people audible far less than they should. If you have a deck that you're familiar with but it's bad playing it just guarantees you'll have a familiar bad deck. At least if you audible you have a chance of picking up a very good deck and I'd take unfamiliar and good over familiar and bad any day. Imagine your deck is 40-50% in the expected field and another deck is 55-65%; you should audible even though you can play yours at the top of its range and the other deck only somewhere in the middle.
1. "I hate (insert name of best deck here)."
Don't get me wrong: it's understandable that people feel strongly about Magic decks. A large percentage of players play Magic to have fun and playing against the same deck over and over again isn't very fun. Again if you enter PTQs to have a good time you understandably want to avoid six rounds of Delver mirrors.
But again this is where you should question your motivation. How much do you want to win? Do you need to get that blue envelope or are you in it for the thrill ride? Is it important to you that you play your own creation? Do you want to be seen as an innovator or is winning the only thing that matters?
There aren't any right or wrong answers to these questions. But they are questions you should be asking yourself. If you claim that winning is the only thing that matters but you always eschew the popular decks in favor of Heartless Summoning-based brews you're not being consistent. There's no reason to avoid Delver "on principle" if you think it'll give you the best chance of winning every match.
Of course success and brewing aren't always diametrically opposed. But you need to have the willingness to forego your pet deck in favor of the deck that will win you the most games if winning is important to you.
So those are the fake reasons. They should have zero weight when you're deciding what deck you want to run. But there are also some very good reasons you should consider when deciding: the AK-47 or the blunt steak knife?
The Top Three Attributes of AKs
3. "It's flexible."
Great decks have sideboard options. You can address your bad matchups with powerful answers. Control decks with Timely Reinforcements for example: likely one of the best sideboard cards ever printed. You can destroy Mono Red after board with three or four copies of this and also have a good sideboard choice against Zombies or White Weenie.
A very useful attribute for a deck to have is the ability to win in several different ways. Take the Naya Pod deck that recently placed four copies in the Top 8 of GP Yokohama. You can win with the primary combo of Restoration Angel + Kiki-Jiki or you can just beat down with efficient creatures like Kitchen Finks. Delver has this attribute as well—it can win in the first few turns with a double Delver draw or go late with Restoration Angel + Snapcaster Mage synergy and Moorland Haunt.
Even highly linear decks can be flexible. Tempered Steel in Scars Block was considered a very straightforward deck: attack with artifact dudes rinse repeat. But even there you had a few different paths to victory which is exactly why it was impossible to metagame against. You could kill all the Spined Thopters and Glint Hawk Idols but still die to Hero of Bladehold or a pair of Tempered Steel-powered Inkmoth Nexus.
2. "It's unexpected."
The very best deck to play is the one that's both powerful and totally out of left field.
Sam Black recently came second in a WMCQ with a "Delverless Delver" brew (you can read his article on this very site.) All tournament he was picking up advantages left and right from people just not knowing what was going on. They'd side in useless Gut Shots and Whipflares and be caught unaware by a Gideon.
Was his deck more powerful than traditional Delver? No. If anything it was less powerful; Delver of Secrets is one of the best cards pound-for-pound in the U/W deck. But for a metagame that expected Delvers and was unprepared for five-mana planeswalkers the deck was a perfect choice.
You don't have to be totally rogue to get a big advantage. A known deck that's fallen off the radar is often a great choice. At Worlds last year four members of CFB made the Top 8 with Tempered Steel. Everyone knew Tempered Steel still existed but very few people were prepared for it the way they were prepared for Humans or Illusions.
1. "It mows down the chaff."
Let's say you're a big team trying to break the format before that next big tournament. Chances are you've been testing your brews against the top few decks over and over again (and not running sideboarded games nearly enough but that's another story). You're desperately trying to get 50- 60% matchups against all of the best decks because you certainly don't want to play one of the best decks. See also: bad reasons for deck choice number one.
After making some unusual card choices you finally get to that point. You've got the edge against all the gauntlet lists. You go to bed the night before satisfied that you've done your work and confident that results will go your way.
But on the day itself you don't run into the gauntlet lists you were testing against. You play against some decks you're sure weren't part of the metagame last time you checked. B/W tokens really? You play against Delver sure but it's this weird mono-blue list and those Go for the Throats that were meant to kill Restoration Angel don't help much against Invisible Stalker.
The fact is that in all but the most biased metagames the top three decks account for no more than 50% of the field and often less than 35%. Most of your rounds will be played against various minor players in the metagame or other groups' pet decks. Decks that you knew about—but hardly had time to consider.
This is why it's important that the deck you play is intrinsically powerful. It's a very rare metagame that affords a "solution": a deck with unusual cards that manage to answer all possible problems. Most of the time the deck that wins a tournament will be doing something good proactive and hard to stop.
Don't try and beat that guy.
Be that guy.
Until next time