Feature Article – Four Good Reasons Not to Play a Deck

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Finding the best deck in a format can be hard. However, there are often obvious signs that a deck is just not good enough to win a tournament. Tom shows us four of them, and also warns us about two reasons that we should not use as justification for rejecting decks. Also, Tom and Evan Erwin invite you to Saturday Night Cube Drafting at Worlds this weekend. Details inside!

If you’re going to be at Worlds next weekend and you have a cube, like cube drafting, or have never cubed before but want to try it, read past the end of the article. Now, we return to your regularly scheduled program.

For years, I read everything that has been published on every relevant Magic website. At the beginning, I was learning a lot because I knew nothing. As I learned from these articles, I became much more successful. When I started actually winning PTQs, however I began to disagree with things that I read. I started writing because I want to tell the world what I think is the truth about how competitive Magic works.

One example of something I disagree with that is accepted as common knowledge is that you need to try really hard to play the best deck for any format or tournament. I think that’s just dead wrong, and your deck matters far less than any article wants you to think. Perhaps no one wants to say this because it could prompt you to become less dependent on us, the Magic writers, for your information. We all write things that are published on websites, so theoretically we know more than you do. I suppose that if you decided not to listen to us, we would have no reason for existing.

Magic: The Gathering Pro Tour Qualifiers have only one prize: the invite. If you want it, you’re going to have to win the tournament outright. The interesting thing is that in any given format there are usually lots of decks that you can do this with. Time Spiral Block Constructed PTQs were won by Teachings decks, Pickles decks, Blue-Green beatdown decks, and Green-White-Red Predator decks. Seven different archetypes made the Top 8 of Pro Tour: Valencia. You could argue with me that this was because it was the beginning of the season; fine. Go look at the Top 8 decks from Grand Prix: Dallas (six archetypes) and Grand Prix: Singapore (five archetypes) from last year; both events were held at the very end of the season. Clearly not all of the players in these Top 8s had the “best deck.”

This is not to say that you can win a tournament with a bad deck, because you can’t. You need a deck that is “good enough” in some sense. Most of the good players I know talk about decks as being “reasonable” or “not reasonable,” and what they mean by a “reasonable” deck is one that is good enough to win a large tournament with. Nailing down what makes a deck “good enough to win a large tournament” is hard; in comparison, it’s much easier to tell when a deck does not satisfy that requirement. When I explore formats, I start by considering everything that exists and methodically eliminating decks from consideration. I may end up with only one deck that I think is reasonable, or I may end up with many, but that’s okay. Then, I pick one, learn it, and tweak the deck as I learn more and more. This process works better for me than worrying about finding the “best deck.”

There are good reasons and bad reasons to eliminate decks from your consideration. The following are four good reasons and two bad reasons for rejecting decks.

Good Reason Not to Play a Deck #1: It’s Underpowered.

Some decks are simply not powerful enough to compete in a format. You can’t expect to win a tournament if the rest of the room is doing things that you just can’t handle. Everyone knows not to bring a Kamigawa Block Constructed deck to a Vintage tournament, but every format has decks that are better than others. You don’t want to bring a knife to a gun fight, and you really don’t want to do that if you have to win eight gun fights out of nine in a day. You may be able to play well enough to make up for this against weaker players, but it will eventually catch up to you when you meet other good players in later rounds with real decks.

One way that a deck can be underpowered is that it has a bunch of good cards that aren’t very good at accomplishing anything together. Have a look at this:

Half of this deck is mana. The other half of the deck is awesome cards. Every non-mana card is either extremely efficient or very powerful. However, these awesome cards don’t work together to carry out a powerful strategy. The deck’s plan is to use its card advantage engines to slowly overwhelm you in a long game, but going into a long game with most extended decks is just asking for trouble. A Tron deck is eventually going to topdeck a Mindslaver or a Sundering Titan. A five color Zoo deck can just pick up a few burn spells in a row. An Enduring Ideal deck can topdeck, well, an Enduring Ideal. You can point to the Extirpate or Haunting Echoes as the solution to that, but finding that one card with Gifts, Witness, and Genesis can take a few turns and without a Gifts you may just not ever find it. You also have only six discard spells, so you don’t really have a whole lot of hope of messing with your opponent in the first three turns. I think this deck is underpowered even though it is full of awesome cards.

A deck can also be underpowered because its individual cards are unimpressive. Look at this deck:

This deck is full of unimpressive cards. It utterly mystifies me that everyone seems to think that Scepter-Chant decks are “powerful”; I played something three cards off of John’s maindeck at a PTQ last year, and what struck me about this deck was just how hard it was to actually accomplish anything with. You’re going to feel awesome when you get an Orim’s Chant on a Scepter, but very few cards in this deck are individually impressive. Fire/Ice sure looks nice, but it doesn’t kill a Kird Ape, Watchwolf, or Loxodon Hierarch. Counterspell and Wrath of God are obviously good cards, but in Extended they feel merely fair as opposed to being above the curve. Outside of the Scepter-Chant lock, Teferi’s 3/4 body for five was a terrible deal. Orim’s Chant does very close to nothing if you can only play it once and you aren’t trying to force through a combination. Fact or Fiction and Cunning Wish were okay, but they were slow and in this deck they only found cards that either found more cards or didn’t do very much. Even Isochron Scepter was terrible when it didn’t have a Chant on it. Counterspell on Scepter is surprisingly easy to play around, and Fire/Ice on Scepter is only impressive in very long games. Because the cards in this deck are so underpowered, it can’t win a game by accident; it has to fully assemble its combination to put a game away. Playing more high-impact cards would give this deck a much better chance of winning games that didn’t go exactly according to its plan.

Good Reason Not to Play a Deck #2: It’s Inconsistent.

To win a tournament, usually you need to lose at most one match in the Swiss rounds and then win all of your single-elimination matches. It’s not a trivial task to make it through an entire tournament without losing matches to your opponents, but this is even harder if you could lose matches to your own deck. Every deck can get mana screwed, but some decks fizzle out into nothing much more often and give you nothing to do when that happens. You can’t expect to win a tournament if your deck does this to you enough of the time.

The best current example of an otherwise strong deck with this problem is Dredge in Extended. The deck is obviously powerful; it can kill you on turn 2 without blinking and unless you have specific cards to stop it you probably won’t. However, testing the deck during the buildup to Valencia was very frustrating for me because in maybe one out of four or five games I would simply never see a playable hand and mulligan to oblivion. Normal decks just need lands and spells from a hand, but the Dredge decks need a dredge card, a way to get that dredge card into the graveyard hopefully more than once, and the mana to make that happen. If you didn’t start a game with those things, you were going to lose because the format was fast enough that there was no time to draw into them. Dredge is the most powerful deck in Extended, but it self-destructs so often that I would be utterly shocked if anyone won a PTQ for Hollywood with it.

Sometimes consistency issues can be more subtle. You might have a deck that seems powerful a lot of the time, but also has less powerful draws that still let you play with your opponent but put you too far behind them to win games. It won’t be as obvious as a Dredge deck’s flame-outs, but your deck still may still be self-destructing too often even though it takes longer for you to actually lose. Decks that do this will keep you from winning tournaments in exactly the same way as the decks that flame out more obviously.

I think that the goblin deck in Extended has this problem. I played it in Valencia, reasoning that I could outrace combination decks due to Goblin Piledriver and Ghost Quarter and my synergistic creatures would let me play the control role effectively against aggressive decks. The problem with this was that my deck played very differently depending on whether or not I had a Goblin Warchief in play. When I had one, the deck felt more powerful than most of the other decks. When I didn’t, my cards were slow and clunky and I was so much less powerful than opposing decks that I wasn’t able to compete with them. Not having a Warchief stick around didn’t mean that I immediately lost before I got to play any Magic, but it did mean that my deck would be so underpowered that it was unlikely I would win. I could only play four Warchiefs, and for some reason people kept killing them when I would actually play one. I didn’t win very many matches, and very few Goblin players made it through to Day 2 compared to how many of them started the tournament.

Good Reason Not to Play a Deck #3: It’s Incoherent.

To me, coherence means that a deck knows what it is trying to do. Decks that don’t seem to know this are often trouble. Have a look at this:

This is a deck without a goal in life. It has no good long-term sources of card advantage, so it can’t be a control deck. It has Sakura-Tribe Elder and nine removal spells, so it can’t be an aggressive deck. Tine Rus’s deck above looks like just a pile of cards, but it has a plan. This deck is a pile of cards without a plan. Because it’s a midrange deck, it has to do different things against different opponents. Against combination decks, it needs to play discard spells and beat down. Against aggressive decks it needs to stabilize the board with big guys and removal spells. This might be alright if there were some card selection engines here, but there aren’t. You’re constantly playing off the top and not all of your cards support all of your plans. This introduces consistency problems because you have no way to prevent yourself from drawing blanks as the game goes on.

After reading the above paragraph, you might assume that I hate every midrange deck ever. This is not the case. Let’s compare this to Flores’s gold cards deck. Both decks are a bunch of midrange cards, but I feel that Flores is building for something while Barra is not. Flores’s deck says “I am playing a lot of very efficient creatures and versatile high-impact cards, and I am going to attack you with them until you die.” Barra’s deck doesn’t say anything. He has only eight good beatdown creatures while Flores has sixteen with the additions of Watchwolf and Doran, so it seems to me that Flores has a reasonable chance of actually killing someone quickly while Barra does not. Barra’s discard spells are bad against aggressive decks and his non-Vindicate removal spells are bad against control decks; Flores doesn’t have nearly as many dead cards anywhere because his Gerrard’s Verdicts are still awesome against aggressive decks and his Engineered Explosives can remove more than just creatures. Both decks are midrange, but Flores’s deck is coherent in ways that Barra’s deck is not.

I think there is a lot of value to be gained from a deck having similar plans in every matchup. When your back is against the wall, you only have to defend yourself from one direction of attack. Coherent decks are more consistent because they only have to support one plan.

Good Reason Not to Play a Deck #4: Matchups and Sideboards.

Some formats have decks that you have to beat to win a tournament. This may be because the deck in question is so popular that you’ll hit it multiple times in the Swiss, or it may be because the best players in the room will be playing it and you’ll have to beat them to win the invite. By definition, any deck that has an unwinnable matchup against those decks is not reasonable.

There was a Blue-White Control deck in Mirrodin Block Constructed that was built around Auriok Salvagers. It had counterspells, card drawing, a Salvagers-based long-game engine that no other deck in the format could rival, and Pristine Angel as a massive threat and finisher. This deck didn’t lose very often to most Mirrodin Block decks; Red-Green artifact hate, Tooth and Nail, and Mono-Red were all very easy matchups. The only problem was a little deck called Affinity. To win a PTQ, you had to go through upwards of five or more Affinity decks. The Salvagers deck gave you a little bit of room to outplay a bad Affinity opponent, but a good Affinity opponent beat you in a match about 80% of the time. Only one player won a PTQ with a Salvagers deck that season that I’m aware of*.

Similarly, some formats have sideboard cards that you have to beat or dodge to win a tournament. If you can’t beat those cards with a deck, don’t play it. The most obvious example of this is the Dredge deck at Pro Tour: Valencia. Tormod’s Crypts, Leyline of the Voids, and Yixlid Jailers were in every sideboard in large quantities. You can’t win a tournament fighting this kind of hate.

Sometimes sideboarding issues can make a deck unreasonable in a more subtle way. Early in my Valencia preparation I was exploring the idea of an updated Aggro-Loam deck with Tarmogoyf. Tormod’s Crypt was annoying but never fatal, and Leyline could be dealt with either by Burning Wish for Hull Breach or by just killing them anyway with Dark Confidants, Tarmogoyfs, and Seismic Assault. However, having to fight through these cards reduced my deck’s expected power level after sideboarding so much that the deck was too underpowered to play.

Because of the prevalence of these sideboard cards, I suspect that if you ran Pro Tour: Valencia a hundred times you would still not get a winning dredge or Aggro-Loam deck. This is not to say that these decks did not make money, but we need to win the tournament outright to qualify so that isn’t good enough for us.

Bad Reason Not to Play a Deck #1: It’s Too Hard.

No deck is “too hard to play.” They may be too complex for you to play successfully at your current level of experience, but that statement is about you and not the deck. If you think a deck is reasonable but too hard, suck it up and learn to play it or admit that you don’t want to. Blaming a deck for being too hard is a copout. Don’t do this, or at least when you do it be aware that it’s your problem.

Bad Reason Not to Play a Deck #2: It Has No Play.

Good players like to play decks that make them feel like they have options. They reason that the more decisions that they have, the more they will get to leverage their skill over their opponents. Because of this, they may shy away from a deck that they perceive takes away their ability to leverage their skill, especially “stupid combo decks” or “stupid aggressive decks.” This is a trap. Almost any deck has enough decisions that a good player can differentiate himself from a poor player. The best players aren’t afraid to play simple-looking decks because they know that their skill will still shine through. Practicing with any deck will show you exactly where the important decisions that give you an edge were hiding. A corollary to this is that if you think a deck that has tournament pedigree gives you no opportunity for you to outplay your opponent, then you are not good enough at playing it to see those opportunities.

As an aside, any deck that truly “has no play” is probably not reasonable by the inconsistency rule or the sideboard rule. I don’t want to see anyone in the forums try to yell at me about this and cite something like Meandeck Tendrils or Vintage Dredge. These decks are not reasonable and you know it.

Finding the best deck is really hard. However, not having the best deck doesn’t often stop a player from being successful in Constructed as long as he is reasonably close. The indications I have talked about here can tip you off that a deck is not worth playing if you want to win a tournament.

This concludes our regularly scheduled program. Now, a special announcement!

Saturday Night Cube Drafting at Worlds

Evan Erwin and I will be hosting open cube drafts beginning at six o’clock PM on Saturday evening at the Magic: The Gathering World Championships this weekend. We love cube drafting, and we also know that making a cube isn’t the easiest thing in the world so not everyone has had the opportunity to try it. I’ve played everywhere from kitchen tables to Pro Tours, and nothing else I have ever done in Magic has been nearly as much fun as the cube. If you’ve never cubed before, you owe it to yourself to cone find us and get in a draft.

Evan’s cube can support eight players at a time, and mine can support sixteen. Of course, the two of us can only support twenty-four total players and that’s not all that many. This is where all you other cube owners out there come in! We want to share the joy of cubing with as many people as possible, so we need your help. If you have a cube and you’ll be at worlds, we invite you to find us and host drafts with your own cube. We know of at least one cube other than ours that will be present, and we are hoping for even more.

Wizards is setting aside table space for this event, but we don’t know where that will be at this moment. There will be a public announcement at Worlds around six o’clock about where we are located, so listen for that and come find us. Feel free to contact Evan or me on the forums with any questions; my username is TomLaPille and Evan’s is misterorange. Listen for the announcement onsite, and together we’ll all show the world how awesome cube drafting is.

Happy fishing,
Tom LaPille

* That one win should not have happened. I was playing Affinity in that Top 8 and I horribly punted my match against the Salvagers deck in question. My Ravagers have still never forgiven me for this.