Feature Article – Selecting a Deck: A Case Study

The StarCityGames.com Open Series returns to Atlanta!
Wednesday, April 7th – While perfect play and mental strength is desirable, it’s impossible to win a Constructed tournament without picking the correct deck to play. Today, Zvi Mowshowitz takes us through a collection of interesting points we should consider when sleeving up our weapon of choice.

Related To: Using Your Time Wisely

As I begin writing this, Gaudenis Vidugris is probably on a plane headed to Houston for the Grand Prix. He has had a terrible time picking a deck to play, and I believe the problems he faced are instructive. Rather than focus on what he did choose to play, we’ll focus on a different deck he considered but chose to pass on for good reason. As I mentioned last time, it is common for players and especially professional players to have little or no time to test for tournaments. Houston was a prime example of this for Gaudenis Vidugris, as he would have to compete in the qualifier format, Extended, while he had spent all his recent constructed time on Standard for Pro Tour San Diego and previous the two Grand Prix in Kuala Lumpur and Brussels. I managed to carve out a few hours to help him, but that would be his only time to playtest.

Keep in mind that everything I say from here on in about Extended may well be completely and patently untrue in terms of what is actually out there or what is any good, but the whole point here is that we both knew very little about the format, so this is the information we had to work with. It doesn’t matter what beats what when selecting a deck; what matters is what you think beats what! It’s impossible to make decisions with information you do not have.

The view I was presented with was that Extended is dominated by two major deck types, Thopter-Depths and Zoo. Thopter-Depths has become standardized, but Zoo has not and there are at least four distinct versions running around. The field is still diverse and there are a lot of decks you can face, but those two are the ones you must be able to handle. With that in mind, Gaudenis brought a Candidate Deck for us to examine, which was a White/Blue control deck that was doing well on the qualifier circuit. Or so I heard:

6 Island
1 Plains
3 Misty Rainforest
3 Scalding Tarn
1 Ghost Quarter
1 Ruins of Trokair
3 Hallowed Fountain
1 Glacial Fortress
3 Mystic Gate
3 Tolaria West

3 Baneslayer Angel
3 Glen Elendra Archmage
4 Kitchen Finks
4 Cryptic Command
4 Spell Snare
4 Mana Leak
4 Ancestral Vision
4 Path to Exile
2 Engineered Explosives
2 Jace, the Mind Sculptor

4 Tormod’s Crypt
4 Meddling Mage
4 Celestial Purge
1 Day of Judgment
1 Wrath of God
1 Chalice of the Void

With such promising reports on the deck Gaudenis was ready to play the deck unless some reason emerged not to, but I was instantly suspicious. This deck did not feel right, and I did not need much time to figure out why. There were several major problems with the deck that I identified without needing to shuffle up or play a single game of which I will list five:

1. Never Play Fair

Even in the context of Standard this deck would be considered fair. It has a number of high quality cards in it such as Cryptic Command and Ancestral Vision but every card and every plan this deck has screams the word fair and fair decks almost never succeed. When they do it is in very narrow fields and Extended is never as narrow as players like to think. The plan for this deck is gradual accumulation of card advantage, with cards well suited to deal with the questions posed by Thopter-Depths. This is a traditional White/Blue control deck through and through, except that it uses persist creatures instead of mass removal for its primary card advantage and to help protect Jace. Its best cards aren’t being used to their fullest, as Faeries made far better use of both Ancestral Vision and Cryptic Command. That brings us to our second problem.

2. Maximize the Value of Your Cards

There are cards that are sufficiently powerful that they are played in many or even most decks that have the mana to cast them or have any use for their effects, even if the deck doesn’t really want that type of card. Cryptic Command is a good example of this, as many decks would play it even though they wouldn’t naturally want a four mana counter, a bounce spell or a way to tap creatures. The card was too good to pass up, even if it wasn’t easy to cast. Lightning Bolt is the best pure example in Standard right now, as that is an amazing deal that no ordinary deck with lots of red sources is going to pass up. These powerful cards are worth playing for everyone but they are still at their best when a deck can take full advantage. Faeries maximized Cryptic Command by being able to use all four abilities for good effect depending on the situation, and made keeping the four mana untapped part of its core strategy. Ancestral Vision is strong because it is mana efficient and prevents the player from needing to tap out, but if a deck doesn’t spend all its mana reliably, has enough to cast normal card advantage spells and is tapping out frequently, as this one is, how much does Ancestral Vision accomplish?

3. Maximize the Value of Your Mana

If you’re going to play with twenty-five land and the game is going to go long by design you’ll need good ways to utilize that mana in the long term. This deck doesn’t have them, not even packing one Celestial Colonnade or other mana sink to get with Tolaria West. This played out as you would expect, with a lot of saying go. Early on, the deck will frequently not use all of its mana.

4. Your Cards Should Avoid Fighting Each Other

There is extreme tension here between the counters and all the permanents. Mana Leak and Spell Snare can be worked with but Cryptic Command is awkward at best.

5. Decks That Don’t Exist Don’t Exist For a Reason

The best decks in many formats have lied dormant for a long time, often well into a qualifier season, and presumably there are top decks that have never been found. Other times a deck wouldn’t have been strong before but like this one it is designed to match up well against a narrowing field. Either way, why is this deck only being built now? The harder a deck is to build properly, and the harder a deck is to find conceptually, the more plausible it is that the deck is both new and useful. A deck like this one is not quite trivial due to its creatures but still easy to find, and the format has been the way it is now for a while; if it is good, I should have already known about it, and it seems unlikely to punish players too much for shoddy construction especially given that this looks to me like shoddy construction.

Any one of these reasons would have been cause for suspicion on some level, especially the first one, and all five together had me very concerned, but we also had reasons to be optimistic. Again, I’ll choose five of them:

1. Play a Deck That Doesn’t Get the Respect it Deserves and/or a Deck that is Underrepresented.

In a perfectly balanced metagame every deck would not win exactly half the time, because different decks are preferred by different types of players, but it would be close. Even severely broken metagames often stabilize after major events as players react to the dominant initial strategies by pulling out extreme hate, so to gain an advantage one must choose a deck that players are not reacting to as much as they should, or that is not being played as much as it should be played. If this deck had been any good at all, it would only face incidental hate and sideboarding, which is potentially a gigantic advantage. Note that dominant decks can and frequently do fit this description, and from what I’ve seen Thopter-Depths has been underrepresented for the entire qualifier season.

2. Even Better, Play a Deck No One Even Knows Exists

If they don’t know it exists, it won’t be represented and it won’t get any respect. On top of that, opponents won’t know how to react or what you are up to. Often you can represent a different strategy for a long time and get your opponent to make serious mistakes such as assuming this list has mass removal in it. That would be almost as big a mistake as it is for this list to not have any mass removal in it. No, Engineered Explosives does not count. This deck will therefore play better in a real tournament than it would against a playtest partner who knows what he is up against.

3. Play a Deck That Lets You Play Magic

I’ll probably talk more about this again soon, but when a player has a skill advantage over the field that player can’t leverage that advantage unless he creates opportunities for him to outplay his opponents. The trap here is that more than half the field is thinking the same thing, and a lot of them overemphasize this too much. Don’t be afraid to claim your advantage elsewhere, or to admit that you have much to learn and that you are at a disadvantage. Which brings us to our next point, which is:

4. Play a Deck That Uses Your Experience and Knowledge

The types of situations created by this deck reward general Magic experience and experience with creature based control decks and they minimize the reward for knowledge of the Extended format. For someone who has a lot of general Magic knowledge but far less current Extended knowledge, such as Gaudenis, that is a big advantage. He had been given a list that was supposed to be doing extremely well in qualifiers, which is often the way Pros gain a big advantage in a Grand Prix, so this promised to play well to the knowledge he had while minimizing the importance of the knowledge he lacked.

5. Give Yourself a Chance to be the Best

It is very hard to win a tournament playing an inferior build of a popular deck, or playing a good build of a popular deck poorly. Your opponents later in the tournament will be those best prepared for you, but you won’t be prepared for them, and this includes the mirror matchup. The best case scenario is that you’re playing the best deck but you’re still operating at a disadvantage to the players who are coming in with proper preparations. This is one of the strongest reasons to pick a deck early: If Gaudenis had enough time, I would have pushed him strongly to play Thopter-Depths, but like most strong combination decks it is hard to catch up on them once you fall behind on the tech curve. This is one of the primary reasons they continue to be underrepresented even after everyone knows their power, and a strong argument that if winning is your focus, a player well prepared to play the most popular deck and who believes that deck is strong should focus on being the best he can with that deck.

Note that the five reasons to dislike the deck all shared a focus: They were all about how the deck lacks the necessary raw power. Also note that the five reasons to like the deck all shared another focus: They all point out that the deck was well positioned for this player at this time and this tournament. I am not a big believer in the ability of positioning to overcome a large deficit of raw power. In most cases, a deck that succeeds and that appears to be a metagame choice turns out also to have more power than was previously thought. The Solution is the best example of this. It looked at first like a pile of awful cards that won a Pro Tour thanks to its absurdly good positioning complete with four maindeck copies of Crimson Acolyte, but the full block showed definitively that this was not the case as new versions of the deck managed to survive in a diverse field. Often searching for a way to position yourself well can lead to discovering a strong deck others haven’t found, which is what happened there.

Given all of that, what ended up happening? Gaudenis proxied up zoo for me and we got started, as I didn’t want to worry at first about my playing Thopter-Depths incorrectly and giving him the wrong idea about how that matchup worked, and because Zoo was the half I was worried about. The version he built for me used Bloodbraid Elf and Blood Moon.

After two games, I strongly suspected the W/U deck was junk. Zoo was not playing the part of a control killer, as it has only eight one drops, four of them are mana and the deck is packing a lot of utility cards at the cost of speed. Tarmogoyf as your two drop is powerful but doesn’t put a control deck under much pressure. That might position a Wrath of God style response to do well if backed up properly but it’s exactly the wrong set of threats to be facing down with persist creatures. I wasn’t generating much in the way of pressure, and the W/U deck wasn’t handling it well. I gave it a few more games to make sure it wasn’t bad draws, but after a while it became clear that this was not a good place to be.

If I was going to try and build off this base, there are a few changes I would make. First, the second Plains needs to be in the deck. Blood Moon is a b*tch. With two Plains you have a much better chance of having one without working for it, which makes it much easier to have three different colors of mana and destroy the Blood Moon with Engineered Explosives and lets you cast Baneslayer Angel or Kitchen Finks, saving you the need to blow up the Blood Moon in the first place. I’d also add at least one Colonnade if I was keeping the Tolaria West plan which seems oriented towards having Ghost Quarter access against Depths. I’d question Engineered Explosives as bad mass removal when Zoo has such a diverse curve and many other decks do as well, and be much more inclined towards old reliables like Wrath of God. I would take out Ancestral Vision as this seems to me to be completely missing the point. I’m not sure what exactly I would replace it with, but I would embrace the tap out blue mindset. Better yet, I would abandon the concept entirely as there is nothing in particular to recommend this approach and the field has been proven by Houston to be sufficiently diverse that playing fair is anathema.

This allowed us to dismiss the deck conclusively in about an hour despite having strong recommendations; there was little question it was unplayable and impossible to salvage. Improving it would help but it couldn’t solve enough problems to turn things around in time. There was no strong Plan B, as there were idiosyncratic reasons why both Zoo and Thopter-Depths were not acceptable to him. Eventually he unhappily settled on Hypergenesis, which I felt was a reasonable choice in the situation, and he went off to Houston.

Any Magic format represents an enormous search space, containing vastly more card combinations than one can hope to consider. Older formats such as Extended are epic in scope and any reasonable knowledge of them depends on building that knowledge over a period of years. When choosing where to search, having good heuristics is vital, and this search illustrates another important piece of the puzzle. Last time, I emphasized the need to narrow the search quickly. To succeed it is vital to find a local maximum within the search space, allowing you to make good play decisions and sideboard choices along with the last few cards in the maindeck. This time, the lesson is to search for the upside when deciding which decks to examine closely, and remember that this upside is severely limited if a deck lacks raw power.

Upside can come from the positioning of the player, the positioning of the deck or the finding of a superior version rather than by choosing a stronger deck. It’s important not to waste time on decks that don’t allow you to leverage your strengths as a player, and to take advantage of the innovations you find. Concentrate on those decks you would play with more skill, maximizing the role of skill where you have it and minimizing it where you don’t whether that is in beatdown, control, combo, mirrors, races, sideboarding or anything else. You should obviously also consider what decks you’re likely to face and how those matchups are likely to go, but none of that changes the fact that these types of positioning can rarely overcome a large gap in power. To succeed, you must put yourself in a position to leverage that power.