Arcane Teachings – Judging a Deck By Its Cover

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Tuesday, May 6th – When we roll up to a large Constructed tournament, we like to think we’re prepared. We’ve quietly and thoroughly honed our deck and sideboard with a myriad of tweaks and a plethora of gauntlet test games… right? If things haven’t gone to plan, we could be scrambling for cards in the hour before the tournament. So how do we maximize our chance of success when we’re working on no preparation whatsoever? Let Tom show us how!

Preparation is a touchy subject for many serious Magic players. Some people might tell you with a smile that they’re always ready with a completely playtested deck two weeks before the event with cards assembled like any other good player, but that’s just unrealistic. Patrick Chapin may tell you that in his day they had to walk ten miles barefoot in fields of snow and razor blades uphill both ways to Friday Night Magic after a long day in the coal mines, and Tim Aten may tell you that he started a cult at age twelve, called it quits after getting five people to kill themselves, impregnated a giraffe at age fourteen and then started gaming, which was when it all went downhill for him*, but there’s only so much you should be willing to believe. We are all human, circumstances come up, sometimes you won’t have a finely tuned monster of a deck ready for an event, and that doesn’t make you any less of a Magic player or human being.

I already wrote about why you might not play a deck here, and Zac Hill has written about how to legitimately prepare for tournaments on a time budget here, but this article isn’t about that. This article is for when your friend calls you four hours before FNM and offers you a ride that you didn’t expect, or when the PTQ is in three days and you haven’t played a game yet. In the past, I’ve written with the perspective of someone who wants to win at all costs. However, if it’s that close to game time you probably shouldn’t carry the intention of mercilessly trampling your opponents because you may not be prepared enough to do that. At this point, your goal for the day should be more reasonable, and a personal win for you might just be to win some prizes, play interesting Magic all day, or even just having fun. Of course, this doesn’t give you a license to be sloppy. You can’t win prizes with a completely terrible deck, you may not get to play interesting Magic for very long if you find yourself stuck in the three-loss bracket by round 5, and having no hope of winning whatsoever because your deck sucks is simply not enjoyable. I’ve chosen decks on extremely limited time frames enough over my years of competitive Magic that I have a process for it, and this article runs through the questions that I ask myself when I am forced to evaluate a deck mostly blind.

1) Does it have pedigree?

Pedigree is the easiest way to tell if a deck you might copy whole is good… if it puts up results. If it has, it’s probably good. Pro Tours, Grand Prixes, and sometimes PTQs are great places from which to shamelessly steal decks because the decks you get from them are battle-tested.

The best places to look for decks change over the course of a season. For a few weeks after a Pro Tour, the best data available will be the results of the Pro Tour itself. The rest of the world will still be digesting it, so you’re safe to just copy something that crushed the Pro Tour and you won’t be too far behind. Later in Constructed seasons, your source should be the PTQ Top 8 lists. It often happens that one particular list of a deck starts showing up in Top 8s week in and week out within two or three cards, and when that starts happening you know that you can safely copy it. Grand Prixes often debut new decks, but in my experience they don’t usually have enormously metagame-warping effects unless they take place very early in a PTQ season. Another useful thing to look for is the player behind a deck you propose to copy. Good players tend to know how to choose good decks, so I’m far more comfortable copying from a recognizable name than a relative unknown regardless of the level of the tournament.

2) Do I like it?

What do you like to do when you play Magic? Do you like to attack people, take absolute control of the game, or slowly grind people out? Whatever it is that you like to do, you probably have lots of experience doing it because you try to do that more often. If you can copy a deck that does something that you like to do, this can easily make up for not knowing exactly what’s going on in the format you’re playing.

Allow me to introduce you to Ben Wienburg. You may recognize him from such Grand Prix Top 8s as Philadelphia this past March. Ben may look unassuming, but if you find yourself across the table from him you can expect consistent aggression. No matter what game you’re playing, he will constantly check your defenses and keep you on the back foot. Given that, it should not surprise you that Ben is a huge fan of Mountains and Red decks. Over six years, he’s played a lot of attacking Red decks, and that cumulative incidental experience has made him a force to be reckoned with behind a Jackal Pup or a Kird Ape.

Ben is a skilled Magic player, and like anyone can learn any deck with practice and effort. He qualified for Pro Tour: Yokohama with Aggro-Loam, and played Mystical Teachings control decks at the end of the Time Spiral block season, and neither of those decks are anywhere near simple aggression. However, he is just more comfortable turning cheap creatures sideways and throwing burn at people’s faces. As a consequence of this, he has spent much more time attacking than not attacking, and given zero preparation time he is going to do better if he is able to draw on that experience.

Ben had no idea what he was playing at Grand Prix: Philadelphia when we left Columbus on Thursday night. He settled on playing my Domain Zoo list at about ten o’clock Friday night. Sunday afternoon, he was playing in the Top 8. It may look like he had no preparation, but I would say that he had been preparing his entire life for that tournament.

Only you know what sorts of strategies you feel deeply comfortable playing and therefore have played a lot, and you should jump at the chance to use that accidental preparation as an asset. If you think you are intellectually comfortable with a deck that you might play but you have a deep-seated unease about it, I suggest staying away. If it just feels right to you, then sleeve it up and smile knowing that your experience is being put to work for you.

3) Do I understand it?

No matter how much you may like a deck, you may have no clue how to play it. Our goal is to avoid decks that are completely unfamiliar and to look for familiar elements in new decks that can help us play them competently without any practice.

In March of 2007, Olivier Ruel played this to the Top 4 of Grand Prix: Singapore. Olivier is a strong name player, so we can assume that he had good judgment about deck choices. Making the Top 4 of a Grand Prix is also not trivial. In fact, all three name players who played this archetype in Singapore ended in the top nine positions. Let’s assume that you like playing goofy combination decks that win with weird cards. This deck is right up your alley, so now you’re ready to play at the PTQ in two days!

… or not.

There is a difference between a practiced Olivier Ruel playing Balancing Tings and you playing Balancing Tings two days after picking it up. Do you have any idea what is going on with this deck just by looking at it? It’s wild, full of “bad” cards, and has crazy numbers. Do you know what stacks of cards to put on top of your deck with Insidious Dreams? What are you supposed to do with Quicken? The scary thing about this particular deck is that there is a significant difference between a practiced Olivier Ruel and an unpracticed one with the same deck. Singapore was Oli’s second try with the deck; his first Grand Prix outing in Dallas with it saw him failing to make Day 2, but he said there that it was due entirely to a lack of experience. That’s not the kind of deck that you want to pick up with no preparation.

On the opposite end of things, looking for familiar elements in decks can quickly bring you up to speed. If you played a Blue control deck the last time you took a format seriously, there’s usually a Blue control deck of some sort to be found in a given environment and that might be a good place to start. This works even better in a format like Extended where you can often find old versions of Standard decks that you might be familiar with. Linear strategies like Affinity and Goblins don’t change much over time, and little Red attack decks tend not to play drastically differently from each other.

Perhaps the best test of how much you understand a deck is how many unanswered questions you have about the deck’s construction and goals after thinking about it for a good five to ten minutes. If lots of questions remain, you may want to avoid it because you may be so overwhelmed by the struggle to decipher your own deck’s capabilities that you will have no chance to win or enjoy yourself. Choosing decks that you naturally understand how to play when you don’t have time to prepare will let you play interesting games of Magic inside the tournament even without putting in the time to learn your specific deck.

4) Will I have fun playing it?

We established before that you will probably disappoint yourself if you go in hoping to crush people on no preparation. If you’re going to spend your entire day/night/weekend playing a game, you might as well enjoy it. I like winning a lot, and since you’re reading me you probably do too, but if you can’t win life is too short for it to ever make sense to be miserable while doing something that is supposed to be fun. If you feel like playing an attack deck today, then go find an attack deck that looks reasonable and play that. However, I don’t recommend playing a deck that you know is bad. If you’re this far, you like winning enough that not having a chance whatsoever to win will make you sad, so don’t do that.

Reading that almost makes me sound like a normal human being and I wouldn’t want to leave you with that impression, so here’s the competitive psychobabble version. If you aren’t happy in a situation, you start looking for ways to get out. Losing is a very convenient way to get out of a game of Magic. Being happier with your deck makes you want to keep playing, and therefore removes that source of a desire to lose. Replace the previous paragraph with this one if you are a soulless crushing machine.


The questions I’ve proposed here may seem like an extremely loose framework for choosing a deck, but they have served me fairly well when time is short. Happily, deck selection is more of an art than a science. Even people who consistently win Constructed tournaments may not be thinking as rigorously as it appears. There’s always an impressive and logical-sounding way to tell the story of why someone is playing a deck, but in the end deck choices come down to intuition rather than deduction, and not having tons of specific knowledge about a format won’t stop your intuition from functioning. Only you know what you like to play and know how to play; let that knowledge guide you when your time is short.

Tom LaPille

Postscript: Star City Games Mega-Magic Weekend!

This coming Friday, Saturday, and Sunday is the Star City Games Mega-Magic Weekend in Richmond, Virginia. No matter what your Magical format of choice is, you should go. Magic is awesome, Magic tournaments are even more awesome, and really big Magic tournaments are about as awesome as it gets. At big events, there’s a incredible sense of energy in the room that I have yet to experience at any other sort of gathering. Normally Grand Prixes are the only events that reach this scale, but given the attendance of previous Star City Games events I think it’s going to be big and I can’t wait. The Star City Games staff is world class and very good at running events that are smooth and enjoyable, so this weekend is not to be missed. I’ll be there; stop by and say hello!

I attended a double Star City Games double Power Nine tournament that was held in the same location that this one will be, and I have a few bits of advice for people who are going. Unless you are extremely budget-conscious, stay at the Marriott that is listed in the event information. Rooms were still available as of this past Sunday. The rate is $170 for two double beds, but the hotel is connected to the convention center and the convenience is totally worth it. Richmond is fairly accessible by car as long as you aren’t doing much intra-city traveling, but not having to drive in and out will save you time and hassle in the morning. Food is expensive inside the convention center, but there is a mall food court about three blocks away from the site where there is a large variety of cheap food. For post-event celebrations of success and/or drownings of sorrows, Richmond’s entertainment district features many restaurants and other fine establishments. I don’t know exactly where that is, but if you take my advice to stay at the Marriott there is a van that will take you from the hotel to the restaurants and back without a charge if you give them advance notice of your plans. Find a big group, figure out what you’re looking for in nighttime entertainment, and describe it vaguely to the concierge, and it will materialize in physical form in about fifteen minutes. If you need food and it’s so late that everything is closed, there is a greasy spoon diner about a block away from the hotel that will solve your problem. I failed to locate it using Google maps, but once again the hotel staff can guide you to it.

* Thanks to Ian Gossett for allowing me to steal this from his Facebook profile:

Ian Gossett: ship life story
Tim Aten: born in a log cabin in Illinois
Tim Aten: killed a bear when I was 3
Tim Aten: sang with the Jackson 5 when I was 6
Tim Aten: got hooked on cocaine at 8
Tim Aten: heroin at 9
Tim Aten: rehab at 10
Tim Aten: started a cult two years later, got five people to kill themselves before I called it quits
Tim Aten: impregnated a giraffe at 14
Tim Aten: then I started gaming at age 15, and it was all downhill
Tom LaPille: that’s possibly the best thing I’ve ever read
Tim Aten: wow, you must not read Tom LaPille articles then