How To Master Deck Selection

Picking the right Constructed deck for an event is a skill you can learn. Mythic Champion Autumn Burchett offers examples and advice to put you on the path to metagaming mastery!

Choosing the right deck for an upcoming tournament is one of the most challenging situations to approach in all of Magic. If you show a collection of the world’s best players a keep-or-mulligan decision or a what’s-the-play scenario, a lot of the answers you receive will tend towards similar results. Yet when you make that same group of the world’s best players choose a deck to play at a tournament, you’ll end up with a vast array of different decks, all with different justifications behind these choices.

What information should you try to process and understand when deciding on a deck for a tournament, and how can you use this information to help make the best deck choice for you?

Deck selection is not only a skill we just generally underrate, but also one we rarely actively encourage or teach people to improve. We look at choosing a deck for a tournament as something you stress over in the week leading up the event. Finally you lock in your decklist, and once the tournament is over, you immediately move on and dive headlong into preparing for next week’s event. Instead I want to look at deck selection as a process that you can iterate on from one tournament to the next, refining your approach each time you go to a tournament via self-awareness and reflection.

This is my philosophy of how to approach deck selection, which I have attempted to follow and constantly improve over the last couple of years. I hope that this article can help you gain a clearer sense of how to improve your approach to deck selection also.

The Personal

Everything you do when you’re selecting a deck for a tournament should be done with the aim of maximizing your win percentage in that tournament. In a very broad sense, every question you’re asking yourself should be through the lens of “Does this maximize my win percentage?”. Often the answer to this question is “I don’t know,” as it being hard to answer is essentially the reason this article exists, but keeping this question in mind is key to maintaining the correct perspective.

Looking through this lens, it’s easy to see how deck selection becomes immediately personal. The win percentages you can achieve with the various decks in a format depend strongly on your personal skills and abilities. When your aim is not to choose some definitive best deck for the tournament, but rather to choose the deck that you will win with the most and that will therefore be the best deck for you, it becomes difficult for anyone else to make this choice for you. You understand your strengths and weaknesses more than anyone else, you have to take responsibility for your choices, and you’ll be the one shuffling up for your first round at 9am on Saturday morning. It doesn’t matter if Brad Nelson would win the most with Sultai Midrange if the deck you’ll win the most with is Esper Control.

There’s a big condition on all this if you have any interest in self-improvement. You can think about your win percentage in the short-term, such as whatever Open you’re going to next, or the long-term, looking forward months or years into the future. When preparing for your tournament this weekend, the most important thing to do is to focus on entering that tournament with the best possible chance of winning it, but it’s valuable to set aside time and practice for the sake of long-term growth too.

Maybe you think Mono-Red Aggro is the best deck for this weekend in the abstract, but you don’t have experience with aggressive strategies and so believe your win percentage would be higher playing a midrange or control deck instead. Fine, don’t play Mono-Red, but after the tournament is over, set aside some time to try the deck out, to practice it and gain a better understanding of it. This way, the next time Mono-Red is the best deck for a weekend in the abstract, maybe you’ll have enough experience to work from and enough gathered confidence for it to be the best deck for you to play that weekend too.

It’s fine to have preferences in terms of what decks you’d rather play. Part of improving your deck selection skills is recognizing these preferences, understanding how they will impact how you’ll perform, and being open to playing a deck that might not be The Best Deck but is the right deck for you on that particular weekend. At the same time, improving your deck selection skills in the long-term also involves working on practicing with archetypes you may not currently be comfortable with so that your preferences don’t end up holding back your results when the decks you currently love simply aren’t a good choice in the format anymore for whatever reason.

Understanding Results

We’re always told not to put too much emphasis on results when testing for tournaments. The data gained from a sample size of a few Leagues on Magic Online or a bunch of matches on Arena simply isn’t enough to tell you how good the deck you’re playing is. This point simultaneously has a fair amount of truth to it and is also consistently oversold to us. Ultimately I’d be pretty hard-pressed to tell you not to play the deck you’ve been winning a lot with in preparation for a tournament if there’s nothing else you’re winning with nearly as much, as the reality is that you do have to be able to win matches when you sit down across from your opponents, and winning a bunch before the event itself is at least an indication that that is possible.

You should, however, be constantly asking yourself questions during this testing process. Ask yourself why you’re winning the games you’re winning and losing the games you’re losing. Are your opponents mulliganing a lot? If you’re mulliganing a lot or are having clunky draws, why is that? Is it the deck’s fault or just bad luck? What cards or parts of your strategy are contributing to your wins? Have your draws been stronger than you’d expect? If so, do you understand why? It’s fine to put emphasis on the results you’re getting from testing when choosing a deck for a tournament, provided you understand where those results are coming from. If you’re winning a lot but can’t understand why, you should at least be cautious about putting your trust in those results.

Ask yourself: Is your deck actually good on a fundamental level? There’s a Michael Jacob article that features an excerpt on how to identify good Constructed decks that forms the basis for a lot of my opinions on the subject. Essentially the three important elements of good decks are having the ability to nut draw your opponent, the ability to mulligan well, and the ability to win through resistance (either via raw power, via effective answers to said resistance, or most likely via having flexibility in regards to your gameplans).

Memorize these three qualities of good decks. When you find yourself winning with a deck, ask yourself if it fulfils all three of these. It’s not essential that the deck meets these qualities, but I’m a lot happier to trust my results with a deck in testing if I know that the deck is fundamentally sound in these regards. If a deck is good in this sense and I am winning with it, then choosing to register it in a tournament can’t go terribly wrong, even if it isn’t the actual best choice.

Selecting for Metagames

As well as accounting for your personal strengths and preferences and accounting for your results from testing and how good decks feel to you, there’s one more thing you need to take in to consideration, and that’s how everyone else in the tournament will have on some level been trying to do this too. The knowledge that everyone else is autonomous, free to make their own deck choices, and influenced by any number of factors (but most notably by recent results) forms the basis of what we think of as a metagame. Not everyone will try to next-level what is going on, but some people certainly will, and you need to be aware of how this will affect the field of decks you expect to face.

Over a short time span, a metagame can only change so much as some people are going to play their pet decks for as long as they are able, whereas others simply can’t justify spending a bunch of money to swap decks particularly often. There will be a natural ebb and flow though. Some people will want to be on the new deck that just crushed the most recent tournament. People will get scared of playing the decks that are weak against whatever has won recently so will register those decks less, whilst others will see this as an opportunity to prey on the new best deck. We all know how these sorts of shifts happen, as we hear them talked about constantly.

What do these shifts mean for you and your approach to deck selection?

There will always be a deck that is considered the deck to beat entering a weekend. Sometimes that deck is just so clearly in front of the rest of the pack that it will be the correct choice to play regardless of having a target on its head. The clearest example of this from the last couple of years is Temur Energy, which was simultaneously very powerful and also very resilient to people trying to hate it out in any way.

Other times, decks, despite being very good, can’t quite stand up to such intense scrutiny. Think Simic Nexus at SCG Richmond last weekend. Simic Nexus is an incredible deck, but many people were prepared for the deck, from Teferi, Time Raveler seeing large amounts of play to people bringing strategies that specifically targeted the deck, such as Mono-Red Aggro or Bant Midrange. The question of how much scrutiny and hate a deck can fight through and how many weeks it can remain on top before being knocked down a peg is very hard to answer, but the more often you reflect on the previous weekend’s results, the more of a sense for this you will get over time.

If you’re choosing not to play The Best Deck, such as if you think it won’t continue to impress after being targeted, you must find something else to play instead. I tend to think specifically targeting the deck-to-beat in these scenarios is overkill and that often other people will be doing this for you. Instead, one of my favourite approaches here is to find a deck that lines up well against the top portion of the field whilst also not caring about the targeted hate that people are bringing for The Best Deck. For example, taking a graveyard-based deck to a tournament where you expect Dredge to be the deck-to-beat is just silly, as you’re going to soak up a lot of splash hate, but if you can find a deck that isn’t hit by said graveyard hate whilst also having okay to good matchups against the four or five decks you expect to be most popular at the tournament, then that is ideal.

This ideal is not wholly realistic but serves as a nice model to work from. The reality is you can’t beat everything and ultimately you must make a decision on what weaknesses you are willing to bear. I registered Hardened Scales for Mythic Championship London because even though the Izzet Phoenix matchup was very bad, I felt like people weren’t targeting artifacts very heavily entering that weekend and it felt like Hardened Scales lined up well against all the other decks I expected to see compete in high numbers. I was willing to bear a bad Izzet Phoenix matchup when it felt like everything else lined up how I wanted it to.

Refining Instincts

No matter how much you work at improving at deck selection, you’ll seldom be lucky enough to be wholly confident that the deck you’re choosing for a tournament is the correct choice, especially in Standard where the format evolves so rapidly. Sometimes you’ll be one of those lucky people proficient with Temur Energy or CawBlade and you’ll know that you’re registering the correct deck even weeks in advance, but most of the time you’ll have to register a deck based on feel and intuition. The biggest thing you can do to improve your deck selection long-term is to work on honing your instincts to be as sharp as possible in this regard.

How do you do this? As well as just generally being more self-aware throughout the deck selection process, remember not to forget about the tournament the moment the last round ends. Reflect, look back over your tournament and your preparation, and ask yourself how you feel about the choice of deck you made. Ask yourself what decisions you made that led to you choosing the deck and whether those decisions make sense in retrospect. Look at the metagame for that tournament, look at what floated up into the winner’s metagame, and ask yourself how this compares to your expectations heading in to the tournament. Getting into this practice will make you much better in the future at predicting metagames and their impact.

Ultimately, the results you achieve aren’t that important as a part of this reflection. You can make the perfect deck choice for a tournament and still lose a lot if you get unlucky, play badly, or hit bad matchups, just as you could also win a tournament with what was actually a bad deck choice. The important thing is to be honest with yourself about the process you underwent, how effective it was, and what you can learn from the ways in which it did or didn’t work. Taking this approach will mean that long-term your instincts will become very strong in terms of predicting metagames, understanding what matters, and choosing the right deck for you for a specific tournament. Spread across enough tournaments, this improvement will mean you will find yourself winning more matches as a result.