Flores Friday – Principles for Modeling the Best Deck

Read Mike Flores every Friday... at StarCityGames.com!
Most of us know that we want, in the abstract, “to play the best deck” … But what exactly does that mean? What is the definition of the best deck? Is it mathematical? Is it philosophical? Does such a thing really exist? Mike has an idea… and shares his thoughts on the subject through quotes from some of the greatest minds in the game!

Most of us know that we want, in the abstract, “to play the best deck” … But what exactly does that mean? What is the definition of the best deck? Is it mathematical? Is it philosophical? Does such a thing really exist? I have an idea; there are many useful and thought provoking perspectives, different but not necessarily contradictory.

You’ll have to forgive some of these concepts and quotes; some are a little dusty, but they should still be interesting despite the fact that our processes have advanced over the past couple of years. That said, all of them represent foundational ideas in my experience. Many of my own concepts and theories are built on some combination of these contributions.

Chris Senhouse:
There is no best deck for a format, but there is a best deck for a tournament.

This one from the final Sensei is one of the most compelling and life-changing statements I have ever encountered as a Magic theorist. I consider it a monolithic truth, in fact. Chris told it to me the year after he was editor of The Dojo, doing pretty well in Invasion Block Constructed PTQs (I did relatively poorly, as opposed to the previous year’s Block Constructed PTQs, when I was consistently Top 8 or better). At the time (2000-2001) it was very en vogue for strong American players to just say “Just play the best deck!” shake their heads, shake their fists, and walk away (shaking fists and heads); all ills would be cured by playing the best deck. Well of course the goal was (as ever) to play the best deck, but their position seemed to be that there was some known quantity in the metagame that was a better choice than everything else, and that any right thinking person would know what that deck was at fifty paces and always select it given any opportunity.

Note that Chris’s position is not that different… Only his time period and the basis of his assumption. Rather than looking at an environment with a really long eye, as if some very obvious Objective Truth were holding the top of the metagame up like marionette strings, Senhouse’s model sought to pick the best deck for a single tournament only, fluidly tipping its hat to environmental shifts and a progressive metagame. Moreover, though it conceded the existence of a best deck (if only for one day), Chris’s paradigm did not presume that knowing what it was would be easy and accessible. From my perspective, his was at once more realistic, more manageable, and an ultimately more accurate way of approaching the problem of deck selection.

Though Senhouse introduced this concept to me more than five years before I started actively swapping decks between essentially every tournament in a single season due to the influence of Tier 2 (though then at the center of all Magic information, I don’t think Senhouse could have predicted the influence of Swimming with Sharks or unceasing MTGO PE playbacks), it was Chris who planted the seed of making fast and loose – and correct – choices over and over based on the requirements dictated by everyone else in the room rather than presupposing an unchangeable best strategy. I mentioned that he was doing well in the more fluid Invasion Block PTQs which moved between several different color combinations before the Desolation Angel decks anchored the metagame in the end, whereas when I made four Top 8s in a season a year before, I had a full set of Disenchants in every deck, Seal of Cleansing, and four copies of Mageta the Lion in three if not all four decks. Deviation from strategy would have been unattractive to me that season. Also note that the best deck to play in a tournament is dictated by the other decks in the tournament. It’s not about pure power; it’s about choosing appropriately given the information you have… Put another way, checking out the previous week’s Top 8 decks should be the beginning of deck selection, not the end.

Zvi Mowshowitz:
All other things held equal, when two decks offer similar value, pick the one with the fewest colors.

It’s hard to keep Zvi’s ideals of color restriction alive in post-Ravnica Standard or Extended, but at least until Sakura Tribe-Elder, Farseek, and Simic Signet, I have tried to keep this one close for a period of years.

I scrubbed out of Regionals 2002 playing a Brian Kibler deck, taking a beating from my manabase, as Brian Kibler decks are wont to do. Manabases with City of Brass and a lot of Yavimaya Coasts might have little downside in the fastest combo decks, but when your guys are actually getting in fights with the other guy’s guys? A rainbow manabase is just one giant party favor for the opponent.

Though a radically shifted marketplace (possibly due to the influence of Mike Turian) has rocked the foundation of this principle, if I had to pick one philosophy that I would embrace for PTQ level, it would be a variation on this one. Zvi is implying that consistency is very important, because the trade offs for high power level (even if two decks have roughly the same EV) can be devastating at the amateur level.

I think this is what Steve Sadin was trying to describe in his “building sealed deck for a GP versus PTQ” discussion, only applied to a much more controllable format. Imagine two decks both offering an above average blended score of 6/10 over many games. One of them plays out like this: 5, 5, 5, 5, 6, 6, 7, 7, 7, 7; and the other like this: 1, 1, 1, 1, 6, 10, 10, 10, 10, 10. One of these decks is clearly better for PTQ play, or if you are a brilliant Hall of Fame class genius: the first. The reason is that both decks have the equivalent number of scores above the median, but at the PTQ level (or presuming that even at PT level you are legend), you will have many more opponents who will give up value, giving you a greater chance to win with 5/10 than 1/10 (the presumption being that you will win with both 7/10 and 10/10, but with different margins). The second deck might be a better choice for a mediocre magician at PT play, or for a player who isn’t very good at the PTQ level (however, it will never qualify for “the best deck” despite offering the exact same naked value).

Do you ever wonder how some donkey who you beat at FNM every week sometimes makes Top 8 of local PTQs despite being god-awful and executing like he has hooves for hands? Look at his deck. It will often be a powerful deck like TEPS or NO Stick that has devastating best draws… Watch his topdecks! His 10s will pull him out of his bad play, even if he tries very hard to give up 30% value. He probably just didn’t get caught on his 1s, either because opponents with similarly wild decks fell on their 1s at the same time, or the Swiss environment didn’t punish him at the right times because of the volatility of the metagame (say his hand is unkeepable, he keeps, but his opponent didn’t know to play Ancient Grudge because it is Week 1, and he makes Top 8 therefore). This is the same reason why a high skill player like Paul Cheon will consistently choose variations on The Rock with very little raw card advantage even at PT level: Paul is so good that he doesn’t get very much additional value from 10s than 7s… however, he can easily trick opponents into giving him, say, fake Engineered Plague value so that he can win on his 5s, that is, more close games on gamesmanship.

At the end of the day, what is Zvi’s solution?

Just don’t do it.

Being fancy with your RRR spells in a deck with second turn Blue or Green might be powerful, but it doesn’t necessarily imply the highest EV in the room (we chose R/U/G purely on the basis that it was the only deck in our gauntlet that posted a winning record against ZevAtog).

What about ZevAtog itself? That deck was a smooth two colors, sidestepped the majority of colored mana issues. Was it known? Who cares! Neither Zvi nor I thought it was the best choice simply because it was so known and gunned for at the time, but the silk of its manabase and its quite respectable card power made that deck a better choice, certainly, than the one I brought: Minimize the damage your manabase can do to you; don’t (intentionally) do your opponents any favors.

Like a good soldier I listened to the Hall of Fame best deck designer of all time and went with a Mono-Black deck at Regionals the next year, missing Top 8 on a dizzying mana flood in a near-bye matchup at the end of the day despite playing wonderfully (vanilla Slide); Zvi walked off in disgust at the time, but adopted my deck choice for Nationals; his playtest partner Justin Gary (same archetype) made the team that year. At Regionals, Paul, Josh, and I, all on Mono-Black, all finished in the prizes, if not with the invitations.

Note that this article is about modeling the absolute best deck to play; it is entirely possible that you personally will have higher EV with a bad – that is to say sub-optimal – deck choice. The easiest example I can think of was Extended about three years ago when Gadiel made Top 8 of the Pro Tour playing Reanimator with 4 Cabal Therapy and 3 Duress (correct) but edt had made Alana Burman a Reanimator for GP: Boston with 4 Duress and 3 Cabal Therapy. No offense to Lana, but she was not as good as Gadiel, and had a higher hit percentage with Duress than bald Cabal Therapy, as will most players. Cabal Therapy is much better, of course, seeing as if you are good it doesn’t matter if you hit or not (you choose what will beat you, or what you know is in the opponent’s hand to devastate him with your read; strategically, you don’t necessarily just hit just to hit), especially when you can pre-empt Wild Mongrel or Arcbound Ravager… But in Reanimator specifically, the ability to Therapy yourself to set up a second turn Akroma can be very important! That said, Lana was better off with the wrong 4/3, despite the fact that it was, there isn’t any other way to say this, not as good as Gadiel’s 4/3.

Adrian Sullivan
You don’t play different because it is different, you play different because different wins.

Everything in life, much more so in deck design, is balance, often risk versus reward (“If it tastes good, spit it out” being the mantra of many doting physicians). This one resonates very much with me, and I think that I follow its letter nearly as diligently as Adrian, philosophically even more faithfully than he does.

Adrian’s “different” is the different of murky expectation. While he would probably claim every roguish virtue, Adrian relies most on the inability of his opponent to cope with the philosophy of his threats due to being confused. He will cite the differences between a Red Deck (which he will not usually play) and what he would eagerly choose, being a “burn” deck or a Ponza deck with lots of strange numbers and card choices. He was, in fact, the father of the Philosophy of Fire.

My different, I think, is the different of mathematics. I am just looking for the most value in the abstract, wherever and however I can get it. Adrian gets a lot of practical value handed to him, particularly due to the level at which he plays, for certain… But all of it can vanish at any time when faced with a non-cooperative opponent. For example, Adrian bought Brian Davis a Grand Prix Top 8 with his “Sunny” Domain deck, which was thought to beat the High Tide-popular Angel deck heads up. We tested the matchup right before the Grand Prix… and I was able to win every single game of our last 10 game set, using Angel. Don Lim and I sat down and figured out that you could just suppress every threat in the Sunny if that’s all you wanted to do, and they could not possibly cast Rakavolver, let alone win. It was all three bird Ordered Migrations… and what kind of self-respecting Angel was afeared of that?

That said, different does win, and there is no shame in free wins when the opponent donks. I’ll take those! See more, below.

Randy Buehler
Necro is the most broken card, Trix breaks Necro the most, therefore Trix is the best deck.

Randy ran that one at me at Grand Prix: Seattle, where Trix posted two Hall of Fame Top 16s, no Top 8s, and Bob repeated his PT finish with a win on Oath.

I once said that Randy was the consummate Pro when he played, that he might not have had the most inventive deck, but that he would always show up ready with a good deck, would have tested everything to the best of his ability, and would rarely be surprised. I’d like to revise that now… In a two-year career, Randy very often had one of the best decks, and a couple of times had the straight up no-arguments best deck, from LauerPotence to CMU Academy to the emergency ban, maybe even the consecutive x-1 and x-0 Blue Worlds decks. I have no choice but to revise my position… Apparently I was giving too much weight to the late McCarrell PT deck (quite middling) and Replenish deck (lost to Shuler’s Harmonic Convergence), etc, right before his retirement, somehow forgetting the innumerable superb decks that came before. Maybe I just didn’t agree with Randy’s philosophy, which is largely incompatible with mine, and I became confused. Randy’s philosophy is very good, but so simple that I could never get behind it; if you are going to agree with someone other than me, I’d choose Gleemax’s Baron.

What about YT? What does the old man think?

I am largely but not precisely with Adrian, but not the exact same, because I think he gives up edges by sticking to the same deck for too long. It was because he liked a deck and other people were able to try the list that I was able to crack his anti-Angel code. Remember when edt taught us how to beat Krouner Mono-Blue with High Tide? It’s entirely possible Adrian’s deck did beat Angel at the beginning, but it had no chance against a prepared opponent with the right plan. At this point, particularly in a world where everything but Tarmogoyf is Tier 2, I feel that the best deck is literally always rogue. Barring fluctuations from Time Spiral Block, the last time this wasn’t true, it was the summer of 2004. At the same time, I’m with Chris and Kai (who said rogue was worthless as a concept… as any deck that was any good would cease to be rogue in a week). That’s why I don’t generally stay on the same deck. My formula breaks down after a maximum of two weeks. I really believe in what Senhouse said, and I have tried to train the apprentices this way: You get good by playing, but playing the same deck over and over just teaches you how to beat last week’s decks. In PTQ Magic, positioning is everything, or if not everything, still loads. You can play a three year old Standard deck in Extended, but if you time it right, you walk away with the Blue Envelope and a nod in Swimming with Sharks.

Even today, I take Zvi and his consistency, particularly mana consistency, very seriously. The ‘Tron deck that I helped tune for Osyp in Honolulu didn’t play Wildfire… That card is RR. We didn’t have a double in our main deck; no Hinders, lots of cantrips. That is because I don’t play on PT very often any more, and I get maybe a half dozen amateur events in per year… So despite being quite middling myself, my opponents are rarely miles more skilled than I am. Consistency becomes particularly rewarding.

That said, volatility can be much more rewarding at the PT level. The best amateurs tend to win most amateur events over time as they can repeat and repeat every week until they have their Envelopes, but at the PT, you only get one chance. “Untuned” decks often do well at PT, and the best version of the best deck almost never wins; by PTQ season that best deck might not even be any good any more. This actually makes a lot of sense. If you can only win a PTQ (other than, as Tom commented, Team Constructed) by getting lucky, how much more at Pro Tour, where the opposition is so much more skilled? Is skill involved? 90%, Randy would say! But there is luck, too. I think that winners at every level tend to forget the manascrew free wins they get in round 5, carrying a loss; not the break to Top 8, but potentially lethal. They forget the coin flips they hit, or that they drew Remand when they were manascrewed and Mana Leak when the other guy was manascrewed. All of this is to some degree luck, but over the course of a winning tournament you have so many stacks, and you end up so elated, that the details in non-memorable blowout rounds largely fade for you personally. At PT, decks with too many 2s and 3s, strange card choices, and glaring omissions rise to the top. Why? They hit their breaks when they had one chance to do so. Don’t forget that for every ugly deck list that has the collected virtual soap boxes in a clamor after the Pro Tour, there were 50 similarly disfigured sixties and seventy-fives that didn’t make Top 8.

I have about three more pages of Extended testing, new looks at The Rock, and a crazy sideboard solution from Patrick Chapin… But then I looked over at the book shelf and saw three leaping dolphins fourth over in the Douglas Adams section. So that’s it.