First Or Dead Last: The Rebuttal To Tom Ross

Tom Ross’s article “First Or Dead Last: Play To Win” struck a nerve with Brad Nelson! He thinks The Boss could improve his results at the SCG Dallas Modern Open with a different approach, and so could you!

My plan for today was to discuss new Standard decks going into SCG Dallas. The only problem is, I don’t have any.

I’ve tried a few things out, and nothing’s seemed to stick outside of Ramunap Red and Temur Energy. Of course, there will be new things out there, but I don’t know if I’m going to be the one who finds them. So instead of just throwing some lists out there and calling it a day, I would instead write about something a little more thought-provoking. Something that’s been on my mind for a while now, something that may make you better at evaluating decks and your own strengths, something that may make you a stronger tournament player overall. Sounds better than some lackluster decklists, am I right?

About a month ago, Tom Ross wrote a piece about his most recent Modern deck choices with the preface that these decks were chosen based on an interesting deck selection philosophy.

To paraphrase a bit, he described Modern as a format where deck selection is as strategic as the games themselves. Playing the “best deck” will not win you the event, making it a better decision to play the most degenerate thing people aren’t prepared for. This article stuck with me for some time, as there was something off about it, but I couldn’t quite put my finger on exactly what that was. Multiple readings only perplexed me, as it was almost impossible for me to render a cohesive anti-argument, yet I knew there was one.

There’s no error in the initial message. Playing a degenerate deck that people aren’t expecting is in essence the format. We’ve seen it for years now as the metagame constantly evolves, and new decks that do spectacular things take down events. Finding these decks for the “perfect” weekend has been a wonderful recipe for success. I had to dig deeper into the article to actually find where my hangups were coming from.

Throughout the article, Tom effectively talks about the “cream rising” when he talks about certain decks finding their way into the winner’s bracket, and others that have a couple of losses. He even goes on to say that he had a middling finish with Infect thanks to a couple of early losses, yet Todd Anderson playing the same deck went on to win the whole thing, as he wasn’t in “medium-bracket hell.” On the flip side, Tom won an Open with G/W Tron when he stayed with the cream that didn’t have his bad matchups for that weekend.

Right on the surface, this sounds like results-oriented thinking, as predicting what will have zero, one, or even more losses is practically impossible, especially in such a big event like an Open. Too be fair, having a plan is very important when selecting a deck, so for now let’s just say I disagree with this, but it’s still a process which is very important to have.

I’m not even going to get into whether I believe Infect or B/W Pox is good for the metagame or not. That’s not what today’s about. The story’s actually about the deck selection process, and why I don’t subscribe to this “first or dead last” strategy.

The More, The Merrier

To begin, it’s important that everyone should have a unique process. We all have differing skills and histories with the game, so we shouldn’t all try to prepare the same. So for this exercise, we need to center it around Tom Ross himself, and look into why he choses this mentality.

Now, it should not be an insult to anyone when I say Tom Ross is among the most talented players in the room when he enters an SCG Tour event. His resume speaks for itself, and he has proven time and time again that he can maneuver his way around his opponents with ease. It’s only when he faces more challenging opponents that his win percentage wavers. My major reference for this “fact” is his performance in three SCG Players’ Championships.

So why is that?

I believe he chooses the wrong decks for the wrong reasons, and the “first or dead last” theory is proof of that.

To break this down, it’s best that I first explain my theory on deck selection based on the spectrum of decision placement. This is a largely unexplored framework for deck selection that I’ve begun putting great thought into for the past couple of seasons.

There are three major branches of targeted decision placement, but the lines between them are extremely blurry, given how complex Magic is as a game.

1. “I make the tough decisions.”

Strategically, those in this category are at the high end of the skill spectrum for the event they are playing in. They want the tough decisions, because they believe they can make them correctly.

Reid Duke is a prime example for this, as he’s infamous for choosing decks that cater to him making the hardest decisions. He gravitates towards high-top-end control decks like Miracles in Legacy, Jund in Modern, and Control in Standard. Okay, so Jund may not be a true control deck, but it sure does put the onus on the pilot to make the correct decisions more than the opponent.

2. “We both make tough decisions.”

The strategic value of this style of deck is that you can make tough decisions that force an opponent to make even tougher ones. Mistakes are less forgiving, but high-level plays can be more rewarding, as you can more easily turn inexperience against the opponent.

I often fall into this category. I often play midrange decks that have the ability to play offense or defense. They can get overpowered or quickly run over, but in the mid-game they tend to be superior. Examples of these decks are Bant Company, G/W Tokens, Grixis Death’s Shadow, and Grixis Delver.

3. “They make the tough decisions.”

Get out in front of the opponent with something fast or powerful. Your deck does most the work, and it’s the opponent’s responsibility to react correctly in a short period of time. Decks that fit this mold are Infect, Tron, Modern Burn, Mono-White Humans, and Mono-Black Zombies.

This is where Tom Ross lives.

Most of his deck choices get off to an early start and force the opponent to make tough decisions to stay alive. If they can’t make the correct plays or have the perfect cards, they lose on the spot. If they can or do, it becomes quite difficult to win the game.

There are arguments that decks in Category 3 have more decisions made prior to the event themselves: plans laid out, strategies in place so that there aren’t issues when executing them in a tournament.

A case study for this is when I played G/R Goggles (a Category 3 deck) at Pro Tour Shadows over Innistrad. Bant Company was actually a very bad matchup, but only if they played in a very specific way. If a certain plan wasn’t executed, G/R Goggles dominated the matchup. We found this out in testing, but it took multiple days to uncover. By then, it was clear that no one would figure out such a counterintuitive strategy in the three minutes between games. They may not have even figured it out in time for the Top 8!

That said, every deck has complex decisions to make prior to events, so saying one is more decision-based than the other doesn’t carry much weight. To be fair, my whole philosophy of in-game decisions also gets attacked by the “but everything has decisions” argument, so it proves that this is just a theory right now that may hold no relevance. Hopefully people smarter than I am read this and pick up with their thoughts on it, but for now I’m going to believe what I believe.

Under my assumptions, you shouldn’t both a) be the best player in the room and b) give the tough decisions to your opponent. I’m fully aware that this is by no means a concrete fact, but it is currently a hard fact when it comes to my own process. Giving them the tough decisions means you may be incapable of elevating your own cards. What’s written on them is all they are, and all other control is left to variance and the opponent. Sure, a weaker opponent will not make the correct decisions all the time, but losing control of the situation like that is not something I personally subscribe to.

Formats Matter

It’s important to keep in mind that Tom was solely referring to Modern in his article. Modern does tend to be more about the cards than the players, which is why playing something more rigid by design can be beneficial. And it’s also important to note that Tom Ross has had way more success in the format than I have, so I could be way off base today. Or his sample size of Modern events is just much higher than mine.

So to make sure we are all on the same page before we move on, I believe Tom is too good to play decks in Category 3. Forcing the opponent to make the toughest decisions should be a tactic used mainly by those who are impacted by a skill deficit. The strongest players should only choose a deck in this category when they are confident it’s a “sure thing.”

Now, Tom didn’t believe Infect was a sure thing, but merely a deck that could win the tournament if he found himself in the correct bracket. Again, ignoring the fact it was infect, let’s focus on his projected metagame. On top were three bad matchups (Level 1), but underneath were many good ones (Level 2). Those good matchups for him also had good matchups against the big three. So as the tournament progressed, he was under the assumption that the cream would rise, causing Level 2 strategies to dominate the top tables. If he could make it there, he was poised to win the event.

This right here was what I was hung up on for so long but couldn’t articulate to myself. His polarizing opinion of matchups is fundamentally the opposite of the way I view tournament matchups. He will succeed by facing many more good matchups than bad ones, and fail if the opposite comes true. That’s where the title “First of Dead Last” comes from.

I do the same thing, but often sacrifice matchups I believe to be underplayed or underrepresented. I never accept having a bad matchup that’s popular if I can avoid it. If I do, I look for a different deck.


So let’s say you have a deck that is 100% against 58% of the metagame and 0% against the other 42%. That deck would be a better choice in a Grand Prix or Open than a deck that is 55/45 against that same field. With a random distribution of opponents, you are 58% to win each match. This is, of course, taking out skill and any shifts in matchup percentages.

Now, under Tom’s assumptions, the possible matchup percentages would shift as the tournament progressed. Under his assumptions of how it would progress, he believed his deck choice would continuously get better and better, so much so that the deck choice didn’t even have to have a high base win percentage against the field, since it would only increase as the event moved forward. So even if he started off with a lower win percentage than the consistent 55/45 deck, it would eventually become a better choice overall. At least it will increase his spike potential, which is his main concern.

So let’s take a step back from the math and philosophy (and Tom) for a minute to take a closer look into the mindset of doing well. Tournament Magic, by design, has incentivized spiking tournaments. Most of the prize money is in the finals of any event. It drops significantly from there, but there’s still one major break in finish that’s celebrated: Top 8. Even though there isn’t much of a difference between eighth and ninth in terms of prizes, the two finishes have a rather large disparity when it comes to accomplishment. Even though some public figures are trying to break away from this mentality, success in Magic has greatly evaluated by one’s number of Top 8s. If you want to be recognized in this game, you need to be filling out Top 8 profile sheets.

This mentality almost assuredly influences us all when it comes to deck selection, but it shouldn’t have as much of an impact as we allow it to. That’s because the idea that decks can spike or do terribly is simply incorrect. The variance injected into Magic can allow any deck to win, lose, or even do both, causing a middling finish. The idea that a certain deck can spike if things go right applies to all decks. Thinking this way only blinds you into making subjective decisions rather than objective ones. Maybe justifying a pet deck is one of those emotional decisions?

“Break it” mentality also plays its part in this phenomenon. In the modern era of Magic, 2011’s CawBlade broke the mold when it comes to breaking a format. I won Player of the Year, Ben Stark won Pro Tour Paris, and all over the world, players began daydreaming about when they would break the format and win a major event.

The same came true a few years ago when Team ChannelFireball/Face2Face and Team East/West Bowl showed up with Eldrazi decks to Pro Tour Oath of the Gatewatch. These stories are probably the “coolest” we have, and why we as Magic players love the idea of bringing an unstoppable deck to a tournament, sometimes picking up a forgotten deck and justifying it thanks to the idea of potentially breaking it. The idea of effortlessly winning at Magic can be appealing, so much so that it can become the main factor in deck choice without even realizing it.

Getting back on track, let’s include skill when thinking about deck selection. One’s ability to play well will undoubtedly change the percentages around, so much so that the idea of matchup percentages is fairly arbitrary. We often use them to express an opinion more than a fact. Good and bad matchups exist, but we all know the percentages aren’t conclusive given the small sample size we get, especially when decklists are constantly changing. The only percentages that truly matter are the ones made in tournaments themselves.

Now, this might be very controversial, but it may very well be the heart of my argument. It’s at least the core reason why I disagreed with Tom’s article, but also why it took me so long to figure out what it was. I don’t want many polarizing matchups, at least as a talented player.

The way I see it, polarizing matchups create more variance. Sure, you could argue that more Game 3s create more variance, as a common statistic in sports is that there is higher variance in closer games/matches, but I believe Magic breaks this mold. The more play time I get, the better chances I get to outplay my opponents and gain my advantages there. The fewer bad matchups I have, the better chance I find a way to win close games and matchups and change the preconceived percentages.

I find it important to go back through all of my events and take a close look at my game win percentage to see if I can find an error in my deck or card selection. For example, if I go 8-4 or 9-5 in a Grand Prix, but only a handful of matches went to Game 3, I’ll go into my decompressing stage with that in mind. There’s a good chance that I had too many cards for a certain matchup and thus not enough for another. Maybe I underestimated a certain deck’s volume of play or abilities. Something, somewhere must have gone wrong, and this metric could be an easy way to identify it.

Let’s flip this on its head, and now assume I’m not one of the best players in the room. In fact, let’s say I’m an underdog. We can use the World Championship as the example, as I’ve put myself in the bottom twelve as far as it comes to skill of play. Here, I may want a deck that wins or loses all of its games in its matchups. I want to increase the variance, as I believe there’s a higher chance of me getting outplayed as the games go longer. For example, I don’t want to play fifteen turns a game against Shouta Yasooka. I’d rather find a strategy that makes me only play four or five and hopefully metagame correctly so that I have the better matchup.

Aggressive metagaming, aka the “First or Dead Last” mentality, is a tactic I want to use in this scenario. I’ll want to find a deck that has “break it” potential and is Category 3, strategically hoping that my selection is unaccounted for. A wonderful example of this was when Oliver Tiu played TitanShift at last year’s Worlds.

So getting back to the heart of the matter, “First or Dead Last” is definitely a tactic that can be strategically implemented, but I don’t believe it’s correct for Tom Ross, at least not in the events he’s playing in. The caliber of play that Tom’s capable of would suggest to me that he should be playing decks that allow him to make more of the tougher decisions and avoid being exploited by too many potentially bad matchups, especially when those bad matchups are the Tier 1 strategies in the format.

We’ve really focused on Tom today, so you may be wondering right now how this information can translate to your own deck selection decision-making. Well, that’s entirely up to you. Deciding what strategies to play and what cards to put in them is by far the most complex part of this game.

I’ve said in previous articles that there are no right or wrong decks, just correct and incorrect ways of finding them. Today’s major lesson is that it can be all too easy to choose a deck through subjective reasoning. You can justify it, of course, but does that still make you correct?