Avoiding The “Deck Trap”

AJ Kerrigan is back with some tips on how to choose a deck for a tournament and avoid the “deck trap.” Read to find out how you can choose the best deck to play at the SCG Open Series: Baltimore featuring the Invitational this weekend.

Pairings for round 3 go up. “I should have just dropped,” you tell yourself as you sit in the 0-2 bracket. You wonder how you got here, and you realize it was your deck. “Why did I let [insert random friend here] convince me to play this pile of garbage?”

Well, my dear reader, you fell into what I like to call the “deck trap.” Almost everyone, including myself, is guilty of it at some point or another. You have your deck picked out for the tournament, but the night before or sometimes even the morning of your friend convinces you to play this sweet new brew he built. “But it crushes almost everything in the meta,” is what they say, and the moment you believe them is the moment most tournaments end for you before you even sit down for round 1. There are three core problems with switching to an untested deck right before a tournament:

1. Knowing your Role

Have you ever tried to be the control deck in a matchup where you’re not supposed to be? It’s abysmal! The first problem with switching decks before a tournament lies in knowing your roles from match to match. Sure it may seem obvious on the surface, but even the Sligh deck has to put on the brakes once in a while. When you pick up a deck that you’ve never played before, it’s very easy to misread your deck’s gameplan from round to round. When your opponent plays a turn 1 Seachrome Coast, Delver of Secrets, do you know what you need to be doing with your turn 1 Ponder? While it may seem easy on the surface, it most definitely is not.

2. Knowing your Deck

This one doesn’t apply to every deck, and it applies to some more than others. When you open up a hand with two lands and a bunch of three-drops, your decision can change drastically based on the number of remaining lands in your deck. What about a card like Green Sun’s Zenith or Birthing Pod? It can be very difficult to sculpt the proper game plan when you don’t know every available option. I lost a game when I borrowed a Wolf Run Ramp deck for an eight-man because I wasn’t sure if there was an Acidic Slime in the list or not. This can be somewhat avoided by giving a look over the deck a few times before the tournament, but after enough rounds of taxing games of Magic it can be difficult to remember everything in the list if you just started playing with it that day.

3. Sideboarding

I’ve seen numerous accounts of people mis-sideboarding with a deck they’ve had experience with. Imagine how much harder it becomes when you’ve never played a matchup before. In my opinion, sideboarding is not a paint-by-numbers process. Most archetypes have variations within them, and that can change which cards are good and bad. While sideboarding guides are a good starting point, they’re never final. It’s important to take into account every card you saw from your opponent and figure out which cards you have that best fight those.

Overall, switching decks right before a tournament can be a trap and will usually end poorly. Here are some questions I ask myself and think about before a tournament to make sure my deck is properly prepared. While it may be difficult to think of all of these questions every time, it’s important to do your best to hit each one.

1. What metagame do you expect at this tournament?

What deck won last week? There’s a good chance that you’ll see a lot of that. What beats the deck that won last week? There’s a good chance that you’ll see a lot of that, too. What beats both of those? You probably want to be playing that deck/that card. These are all basic metagaming concepts that you learn as you become more familiar with tournament play. Something to ask yourself, though, is that even if your friend says his Birthing Pod deck beats Caw-Blade, will you be able to beat Caw-Blade playing with it?

2. What deck fits your style?

Trying to pick up and play a deck that’s completely out of your domain can be tough. Even with testing, playing a control deck when you’ve played aggro all of your life can be a difficult transition. I find myself to be in my norm with combo decks, but unfortunately combo decks don’t exist in the tier 1 of Standard. For a while I thought that playing a deck like Valakut or Wolf Run would provide a quick fix. In a sense they’re just like slow combo decks, but instead of Dark Ritual and Tendrils of Agony, you have Rampant Growth and Primeval Titan.

It’s important when you have a lot of extra testing time to begin expanding your horizons. One thing I’ve learned over time is that tournaments are the best way to playtest. When there’s something other than kitchen table pride on the line, you tend to play a lot more seriously and notice what may have gone awry. People used to playing control decks may have a tough time putting on their Swiftfoot Boots and entering the red zone as early as turn 1. It’s important to master the skill of transitioning from archetype to archetype.

3. Do you feel confident in your ability to play a new deck?

This is the one that takes the most honesty and self-evaluation. Many players like to think that they can play whatever they want whenever they want and perform to meet their high expectations. I was lucky to enough to come to a realization early that I need a lot of testing before I can put up any sort of result. The problem is that I don’t really have much time to test between school, baseball, and other activities I’m involved in. I was still able to manage better by taking testing a lot more seriously and making sure to get in a lot more games and discuss what went wrong/right on a more efficient level.

Next time you think you should switch decks before a tournament, take a step back. Try to imagine yourself in different matchups and how you would sideboard. Also imagine different lines of play that could appear and see if you know exactly which ones you’ll want to make. Be honest with yourself and see if you may have an issue with a deck. I’ll take a tier 2 deck that I know how to play and sideboard with before a tier 1 deck I’ve never touched every time.

4. Will the deck you’re playing actually be able to win the tournament?

This is a tough one because it can be very difficult to evaluate. Look at what the deck is trying to accomplish at its best, and if that doesn’t beat most things then it’s probably not be the best choice if you want to win the tournament. If you completely destroy most matchups but there’s just that one deck that even your nut draw can’t beat, you should still be in good shape for a tournament if the deck you can’t beat isn’t very popular in the current metagame. Now look at what the deck will do normally and how much worse that is than your nut draw. Will you be winning games that way? If not, then you should be playing a different deck.

These are the questions I like to ask myself when choosing a deck for a tournament or for switching from deck to deck. Something contradictory to what I’ve said that you should keep in mind is that many GP-winning decklists were made only a few days before the Grand Prix. If you look closely, though, it’s usually the pros that do that. That’s because after years of practice, they know how to weed the good from the bad. Once they decide that a deck is actually good, they know how to jump around and play with anything. They’ve been playing so long and are so skilled that they know how to play any type of deck efficiently. This is one attribute that separates the pros from the rest of tournament Magic players.

Overall, I hope you enjoyed this look into the things I keep in mind when choosing a deck for a tournament. It can be a trap when your friends convince you that their deck is the hot new thing for a tournament. Unless your friend is Sam Black, I’d be pretty skeptical. Take a deep breathe, sit down, and really think about it. When in doubt, you should always stick to what you know best.

Also of note, I’ve been writing a lot less frequently because I haven’t had many topics I’ve wanted to discuss in detail. If you guys have anything that you’d like me to discuss, I’d love to hear about it. I feel like I’m improving with every article I write: not only in my skill level but in my writing in general. For those playing in the StarCityGames.com Open Series featuring the Invitational in Baltimore and/or any other GP/Open coming up, good luck, and don’t let your friends trick you into playing a deck you’re unfamiliar with. Until next time, keep counting the storm.

AJ Kerrigan
@AJKerrigan55 on Twitter