Fine Tuning

Is there a more underrated competitive Magic skill than deck tuning? Sam Black shows you his process for card selection, data mining, and getting to know a deck inside out!

I usually focus on broad metagame analysis or brewing/new decks, but there’s another important part of Constructed that I think deserves some of my
attention: tuning a deck. I think most people feel a lot more comfortable tuning decks than building new decks; after all, it’s almost all laid out for
you, but then you get to put your own personal touch on it. In the case of taking a deck that’s so refined that your opponents will expect to know your exact list, sometimes even adding a worse card can give you an edge just by letting you take them by surprise. However, most of the time people
“tune” decks, they’re really just making them a little bit worse. Lucas Siow and Ben Stark each gave their decks to others at GP Toronto. Then, those
players changed a couple cards and probably made the decks worse, just not enough worse to stop them from succeeding.

I actually think putting a few personal touches on a deck, even when it’s likely making the deck objectively “worse” is generally good. Take a moment to
notice what I’m saying about that, confirm that you probably disagree, and then let me explain my reasoning. Consider:

First, I mentioned surprising your opponents above–realistically, that’s not going to happen. They’re not going to need to play any differently because
you’re playing one more Hero’s Downfall and one less Abzan Charm–most of the time you tweak some numbers, that’s not the way it’s going to matter, and
most of the time you introduce an entirely new card to the maindeck, it probably won’t win you games by surprising people as often as it will lose you
games by being a worse card, as there’s generally a reason others weren’t playing it.

So, no, that’s not the reason I think it’s a good idea. The reason I think it’s a good idea is that I think the act of changing a card or two forces you to
engage with the list in ways you might not otherwise. You have to really think about what’s going on and why the numbers are the way they are. If you
change one removal spell for another, it’s probably because you’ve noticed that you don’t have enough answers to some particular class of threat. Having
noticed that, you’re more likely to recognize when you need to save a particular removal spell in a game for that particular threat (using Abzan Charm
rather than Hero’s Downfall on Thunderbreak Regent even though Abzan Charm has other modes because you recognize that you’ll need Hero’s Downfall for
Stormbreath Dragon because you don’t have many other answers to it that you can draw into, whereas it might be correct to use the Abzan Charm if you had a
lot of Ultimate Price).

Also, as much as we might not like to admit or talk about it, we all play games a little bit differently. We’d like to think there’s a right way, and we
usually do that, but sometimes we make mistakes, but it’s just not that clear, and we all have certain tendencies, and most of us don’t watch others and
really compare enough to have any idea how our tendencies differ from other people’s (I wish I knew what I was doing differently than others; it would help
me play better to know what I was doing differently than better players and help others to know what I was doing differently than worse players, but I just
don’t know). If you play some games with a deck and then find you want more of something and less of something else as a result of how those games played
out, I think it’s very likely that you’re correct to make that change given how you play, even if it wouldn’t be right for others.

This gets even more true once we talk about making a change because of how we sideboard. Again, we’d like to think that there are just correct plans for
each matchup, but often sideboarding for game 2 has some of the same questions as deck selection in the first place–you could become one of two different
decks after sideboarding (say either by cutting all your cheap cards or all your expensive cards, or by cutting threats versus cutting answers), and there
are advantages and disadvantages to both. I suspect that there’s much less consensus about how to sideboard with a certain deck in any given matchup than
people realize. Often, people mostly agree about what to bring in, but what to cut is something people just don’t get to work together on enough, and it’s
very complicated, and people always just do very different things. So yes, you should make the deck make sense to you rather than taking a successful list
as being written in stone.

So, this isn’t intended as a broad theory piece on tuning, and there’s a reason I’m going into this now rather than next week or last week. I agree with
Patrick Chapin that, with a few exceptions, Standard has, at least for the moment, mostly
settled into a predictable top tier and a cluster of other familiar decks. Given that, I thought it would be useful to talk through tuning some decks
rather than continuing to explore relatively untested brews, especially now that I’ve shifted focus to Limited to prepare for GP Atlantic City.

I want to take a detailed look at two different ways to approach tuning, one with an established archetype when there’s a huge amount of data available and
several similar successful lists to compare, and one with a relatively new deck when there’s very little data available, where you just have to trust your
knowledge of the format as a guide, to show how these methods differ.

I’m going to use Abzan Aggro as an example of tuning an established deck, and Mono-Green Aggro as an example of tuning a new deck.

Let me start with Abzan Aggro.

So, how do we go about processing these different lists into a “tuned” deck?

Step one is obviously identifying the similarities and differences–this tells us what the questions we need to be asking are.

They all agree on:

2+ Warden of the First Tree

3+ Thoughtseize

4 Fleecemane Lion

3+ Rakshasa Deathdealer

4 Siege Rhino

2-3 Hero’s Downfall

3+ Abzan Charm

3+ Anafenza, the Foremost

1+ five-mana creature

4 Windswept Heath

4 Sandsteppe Citadel

2-3 Temple of Malady

2-3 Caves of Koilos

2+ Temple of Silence

3+ Llanowar Wastes

2 Plains

2 Forest

1 Urborg, Tomb of Yawgmoth

That’s roughly 47 cards they all agree on, leaving us 13 flexible slots, and all but Daniel agree on 26 lands (he has 25). I’m inclined to think this means
four of our remaining thirteen need to be lands.

The same way that I looked at the number of lands to see how many more we needed, I think it’s reasonable to look at the number of creatures and make sure
that we add enough creatures that we’re not playing fewer than any individual deck, and the same likely works for removal. So, we currently know that we’re
playing seventeen creatures, though we’re not sure what one of them is (presumably either Whisperwood Elemental or Wingmate Roc). Paul is playing 22
creatures, Brad has 20, Claudio has 22, and Daniel has 21, so we probably want three to five more creatures chosen from more of the cards we’re already
playing: Tasigur, the Golden Fang, Whisperwood Elemental, Wingmate Roc, Boon Satyr, Heir of the Wilds, and Brimaz, King of Oreskos.

For removal, we have five that we know, three Abzan Charm and two Hero’s Downfall. However, Paul has eight removal spells, Brad has nine, Claudio has
eight, and Daniel has eight. Also, everyone has exactly six three-mana removal spells: Brad just has four Abzan Charm and two Hero’s Downfalls while
everyone else has a 3-3 split. Claudio has two Ultimate Price where everyone else has two Dromoka’s Command (and then Brad has a third Command, which he’s
given up a creature to make room for). So we probably want three of our thirteen to be removal spells, and there’s a clear default of 3 Hero’s Downfall, 3
Abzan Charm, 2 Dromoka’s Command as our exact removal package.

Paul is the only one playing Tasigur, the Golden Fang, and the only one not playing Sorin, Solemn Visitor. When you see something like that, it’s important
to look for patterns and to understand what’s going on. Tasigur, the Golden Fang, and Sorin, Solemn Visitor function pretty similarly. They’re both
mid-late game threats that generate advantage going long on a locked board. This is an important thing to have in your deck. The way this format plays out,
between deathtouch creatures, regenerating creatures, indestructible creatures, and a few removal spells for the few evasive creatures, it’s common that a
board will stall out. When that happens, you need to be able to draw to something that will get you somewhere.

Paul is a teammate, and I know he worked very hard on his deck and felt great about the exact card choices. He’s also someone who has played decks like
this a lot in the last few years, whose opinion I respect very highly. Brad, as you probably know, is basically the undisputed champion of Standard Grand
Prix, so his take should also be given substantial weight. Barring very strong arguments otherwise, I’d be inclined to trust their conclusions over the
other two. On the issue of Sorin, Solemn Visitor versus Tasigur, the Golden Fang, I like that Sorin can ultimate to break through Fleecemane Lion, while
Tasigur can sometimes (rarely) just find more of the stuff you already have, which isn’t good enough, and deck you. Paul mitigates this somewhat by playing
a five-drop that has a planeswalker-like effect, in that it improves your position every turn, and can similarly win on locked up boards instead of the
powerful one-shot hit of Wingmate Roc that the others play.

My inclination any time the decision is close between legendary cards that fill a similar role is to split the difference and play one of each until one
proves itself substantially better than the other in games I’ve played.

So, what would my final maindeck look like?

My reasoning: I think Paul’s deck is particularly tuned to beat Esper, playing maximum Warden of the First Tree and Thoughtseize, because making a one mana
play against them is very important. I respect that choice for last weekend, but I think we need to be slightly more prepared for Abzan and slightly less
prepared for Esper now, so I cut one of each to make room for the fourth Anafenza, the Foremost and a Wingmate Roc that Paul didn’t have. I think there’s
an uptick in Deathmist Raptor and Den Protector (Anafenza helps there), and Wingmate Roc is the best threat against other Abzan decks, so I wouldn’t want
to be the one without it. The only other change I’d make from Paul’s maindeck is the aforementioned swap to one Sorin, Solemn Visitor over one Tasigur, the
Golden Fang. Paul and Brad had the same lands, except Brad had a Caves of Koilos where Paul had a Temple of Silence. This is a really minor tuning point,
and I’m just defaulting to Paul’s experience.

With the maindeck set, it’s time to look to the sideboard. (Note, it’s not always correct to finish a maindeck and then work on the sideboard. These things
need to fit together, and each informs the other. The process should work a little differently than this, and it’s okay to conclude that you need a card in
the 75 but don’t have room for it in the sideboard and that it’s flexible enough that you have to just make room for it in the maindeck. Here, I’m doing it
this way both for ease of working through the process in writing and because the archetype is so well-established that I’m trusting the cards to work out.)

Let’s start from the similarities again.

3 Drown in Sorrow

2 Duress

2 Ultimate Price *

1 Thoughtseize *

*=everyone had four Thoughtseize and at least two Ultimate Price in their 75, but people disagreed on the split between maindeck and sideboard. These are
the numbers needed to get to that point given our maindeck.

Everyone but Paul has three Self-Inflicted Wound, while Paul has none. Also, Brad and Daniel have three Den Protectors. Paul essentially had Hunt the
Hunter and Murderous Cut over Self-Inflicted Wound. I respect his desire to play one-mana removal spells to make two plays in the mirror, but I like that
Self-Inflicted Wound kills Ojutai and offers an out to a monstrous Fleecemane Lion, so I’m inclined to go that way. I think the Den Protector sideboard
plan is great. It makes a lot of sense in sideboard games. You have awesome removal spells, and everything is grindier, and they’re better at answering
your threats. Having more access to your cards and more card advantages is exactly how I want to be able to shift for sideboard games.

My sideboard would be:

3 Drown in Sorrow

2 Duress

2 Ultimate Price

1 Thoughtseize

3 Den Protector

3 Self-Inflicted Wound

1 Wingmate Roc

This is exactly Brad’s sideboard, except that I have a Wingmate Roc over the third Ultimate Price. Brad and Paul each had two Wingmate Rocs in their 75,
Paul just had both in the sideboard. I’ve moved one to the maindeck because I want to be a little more prepared for the mirror. That doesn’t mean I get to
cut the other from the 75, so I need to make room for it. Ultimate Price is the card to go. Note that a big part of the draw of Ultimate Price is that it
answers Stormbreath Dragon. Brad needed three because he only had two Hero’s Downfall, but because I didn’t make the swap to four Abzan Charm, I still have
the same number of non-white removal spells to answer Stormbreath Dragon in the 75.

The process for a new deck is a little quicker and a lot simpler. I don’t have many lists to compare, and the archetype hasn’t been thoroughly vetted
through the hive mind the same way. I have Stephen Girdner’s list from the Open Series in Portland, and this list from a tweet from Marijn Lybaert:

I don’t want to focus too much on where they agree and disagree, and I don’t want to take the fact that both of them agree on something as confirmation
that it should be in the deck. Brad and Paul agreeing with the other players who have had success is pretty solid evidence, but here, I think things are
unexplored enough that something being in these two decks doesn’t necessarily make it right. For example, I wouldn’t say we’re fully locked into playing at
least two copies of Swordwise Centaur.

The biggest problem with this deck is the lack of one-drops. Games where you draw Elvish Mystic are totally different than games where you don’t. Stephen
tries to address this by playing a couple copies of Servant of the Scale to give himself a few more things to do on turn 1. That shows you just how
desperate the situation is. Servant of the Scale isn’t the only option, but nothing else is obviously better, and that’s a pretty bad place to be.

So what’s the draw to this deck? Mostly Aspect of the Hydra in conjunction with Den Protector and having smooth mana.

What cards should we be considering for this deck? Well, there’s all the ones that are currently in either deck as an obvious starting point. If we play a
few more pump spells, like maybe just a couple extra Ranger’s Guiles, I could see Hero of Leona Tower if we wanted another one-drop. Scaleguard Sentinels
isn’t a great card when you have no Dragons, but Swordwise Centaur doesn’t set a high bar. Obviously, power is very important for our aggro deck, but there
are some advantages to going the other way–less exposure to Drown in Sorrow is the biggest, but if we play some of each we also decrease exposure to Bile
Blight. If we have two Servants of the Scale, we can attack into a Courser of Kruphix, whereas we couldn’t if we had Swordwise Centaur (unless our opponent
feared a trick). When we’re often just trying to get devotion symbols into play to power up Reverent Hunter and Aspect of Hydra, leading with a card that
can’t be Wild Slashed instead of one that can can be a big deal. Stephen has a Rattleclaw Mystic, while Marijn had Temur Charger, so they agree that an
additional morph is nice. I’d submit Ainok Survivalist for consideration. Heir of the Wilds is a respectable green two-drop, but it does only have a single
green mana symbol, and we’re not great at having ferocious early, and it doesn’t give Surrak, the Hunt Caller haste–probably isn’t worth it.

I think we clearly want to play all the copies of the good cards:

4 Avatar of the Resolute

4 Deathmist Raptor

4 Den Protector

4 Elvish Mystic

4 Boon Satyr

4 Aspect of Hydra

Stephen only played three Reverent Hunter, and it hurts me to leave it off of this list. I feel like it’s one of the major draws to playing this deck, but
I understand that the morphs mean you have a lot of three-mana plays, and it’s weak against removal-heavy decks, which aren’t exactly uncommon. I think it
would make sense to include Surrak, the Hunt Caller in this list, except that I’m not sure I want all of the four-drops to be Surrak, the Hunt Caller and
none of them to be Collected Company.

I’m a huge fan of the one Become Immense here. I’d really like to play a second to make sure we draw it, but it’s probably not worth the risk of drawing

Ranger’s Guile also seems awesome. I like having it to protect something we try to Aspect of Hydra, and I think it’s an important way to stay ahead against
Abzan. I definitely don’t want to cut any of Stephen’s pump spells, and I’d be open to adding more Ranger’s Guiles, but I understand that they might have
to stay in the sideboard where he has them.

This deck definitely has to play some weak two-drops, as we can’t afford to ever fail to play something on turn 2, and we’d rather save Den Protector.

I like that Temur Charger can get back Deathmist Raptor, triggers Surrak, the Hunt Caller by itself, and can help finish someone off with a pump spell when
they have blockers by giving trample, but one toughness and single green are pretty big problems when you have to play it on turn 2. I like the utility of
having one.

Ainok Survivialist is another valid morph, and I like that it gives itself a counter for Avatar of the Resolute and gets three power for Surrak (compared
to Rattleclaw Mystic, for example, which doesn’t). On the other hand, what we really need is two-drops, and casting this thing face up on turn 2 is kind of
a catastrophe.

I think I like this:

I wanted to make room for an Ainok Survivalist, but the curve just doesn’t allow it. The only things I’ve changed from Stephen’s deck are cutting a Nykthos
for a Forest (I get wanting Nykthos for Den Protector turns and for Boon Satyr, but we really have too many double green cards to play two), cutting two
Servant of the Scale for two Scaleguard Sentinels, one Surrak, the Hunt Caller for one Collected Company, and Rattleclaw Mystic for Temur Charger.

I think I like the idea of Mistcutter Hydra in the sideboard, but I’m not convinced we really have enough mana to make it impressive. I think I’d rather
plan to board out Surrak for Collected Company against control and play Collected Company in place of Mistcutter Hydra. Given that we’re not that great at
having a four power creature, I really can’t get behind a Feed the Clan over the third Nylea’s Disciple, and I’m not sure that Nylea’s Disciple is better
than Hornet Nest, particularly given how good Hornet Nest is against other Collected Company decks.

My suggested sideboard would be

3 Collected Company

1 Nylea’s Disciple

1 Reclamation Sage

1 Ainok Survivalist

2 Hornet Nest

2 Ranger’s Guile

1 Gather Courage

1 Setessan Tactics

1 Back to Nature

2 Windstorm

Windstorm is borrowed from Craig Wescoe’s G/W Collected Company sideboard, where he used it to answer Stormbreath Dragon and Insect tokens, and I see no
reason it couldn’t work well here. I have a mix of Reclamation Sage and Ainok Survivalist because I like Reclamation Sage with Collected Company, and Ainok
Survivalist without, and both if my opponent has a lot of enchantments and artifacts. I also want options for tuning as appropriate. I decided not to max
out on Ranger’s Guiles because I’m not sure how often I want to bring in a bunch of pump spells rather than bringing in Collected Company and keeping my
creature count high against decks with a lot of removal. Setessan Tactics obviously plays well with Hornet Nest, but I think it’s also just a valuable card
to have in a deck like this to get some versatile removal.

I know the act of going through the process of studying these decks and thinking about why they play the cards they do and what alternatives they have has
made me feel quite a bit more familiar with both archetypes, which speaks to the point about the value of the act of tuning itself. Following along, I hope
you learned something about the archetypes, but remember that the more important point is learning to think through the options when you’re handed a list.
It’s an important way to get to know a deck.