Lesson Learned

During the #GPDC build up, it’s only appropriate that Brad Nelson is thinking about a great idea involving Magic success and teamwork. Read about the great “best deck” experiment Brad has planned with his pro peers!

Grand Prix Washington, DC: March 11-13!

Magic is played for many reasons. I’ve given it almost half a lifetime of dedication thanks to its unmasterability.

My childhood revolved around graded tests, saving video game worlds, and quarterly evaluations from my job at an inbound call center. Everything in my life before Magic could be evaluated and quantified. I always knew whether or not I was on the right path, and could adjust accordingly if I was doing something wrong. Magic, on the other hand, was not that simple. Once it emerged, I still didn’t know whether or not I was good at the game. I couldn’t even ask the people around me to evaluate my “skill,” since they were in the same boat. Magic became my abyss of the unknown, and I relished the fact that I would never be able to consider it conquered.

The most important moment for me in my lifelong journey to “master” Magic: The Gathering was when I started making rules for myself. Some would involve specific formats, while others would be used for the way I approach the game.

These rules get created when I have collected enough data from the game and my personal discoveries within it. I could see yearlong trends and discover that I was evaluating something incorrectly or found myself going back and forth in my decision making process. It was then that I would make a hard rule to follow so I would not find myself being wishy-washy on a certain subject, much like whether or not to hit on sixteen in blackjack. Today I add another rule to my roster.

Just Play the Best Deck

I’ve been aware of the upside of executing this rule in the past, but I have never before forced myself to “just play the best deck.” It’s easy to become biased in my testing for any given event, especially since I’ve been the leading force for major change in stale formats many times in the past. It’s also a gigantic perk as a content creator to stress innovation in my work. That way, when I do “break it,” I feel more validated in my weekly quest for credible content. These past two weekends of events, however, proved to me that not playing the best deck week-in and week-out is simply lowering my chances for success.

We started things off with Owen Turtenwald winning #GPHouston with Four-Color Rally. For those of you who live under a rock, this event showcased the current best player in the world winning the entire event with the best deck in the format. Now, winning Grand Prix isn’t new hat for Owen. He has two other Constructed Grand Prix wins, both of which came with the deck that was considered the best in the format at their respective times.

I can say firsthand that it’s impossible to always just take the best deck to each and every event. Professional Magic players don’t just play this game for the money, fame, and the chance to meet Brian David-Marshall (even though they are great perks). We play the game because it is fun for us and because the years of enjoying our hobby have turned us into some of the best in the world.

It would be challenging to continue that level of enjoyment while only playing the best deck all the time. It would start to feel like work. The catch-22 in all of this is that I’ve seen Owen Turtenwald and many other world-class players (including myself) do poorly when they decide to play something besides the best decks.

Who knows how many Constructed GP wins Owen Turtenwald would have by now if he solely played the arguably best deck in every event? Would it be overall more enjoyable if one’s win percentage slightly increased by cutting out high doses of creativity and going against the grain? Is playing Four-Color Rally, U/W Eldrazi, Grixis Delver in every tournament enough?

One of the biggest holes in this approach to competitive Magic is its elimination of innovation. Without taking shots in specific metagames, everyone would just play the “best” deck even though the strategy might have a very real weakness that could be exploited. Every tournament showcases an individual or group trying out a new strategy that could very well be the next big thing in the event. Sometimes it is, and sometimes it’s not. The risk and reward of “breaking it” is what’s exciting and why many of us will lean towards innovation some of the time as opposed to always getting in line with the format’s top dog.

Now, I’ve always known this and have played the “best” deck from time to time, but not a majority of the time. What broke me was this past weekend, when Modern took over the headlines of Magic being played on three different continents. We all knew the best deck was U/W Eldrazi going into the events, but many of the best players here in the States shockingly did not play the deck. Instead they had reasons to why they weren’t playing U/W Eldrazi that pretty much boiled down to “bullcrap” when all the dust had settled. In the end, five of the six decks that made the finals of all three GP were U/W Eldrazi, and it only lost one event when it was upset in the finals by Abzan Company in Detroit.

Instead of playing U/W Eldrazi, I played G/R Eldrazi, a deck that has a weaker “Eldrazi Mirror” than other variants but makes up for it by having a better matchup against the hate. The deck doesn’t get beaten by cards like Worship or Ensnaring Bridge, controlling strategies designed to prey on U/W Eldrazi, or any of the creature decks that play Collected Company or Arcbound Ravager.

Here’s the list I played.

I tested with U/W Eldrazi as per Gerry Thompson’s request (Gerry eventually went on to Top 8 the Grand Prix), but I didn’t like the feel of it. Sure, it was powerful, but it always felt as if every deck I was playing against had this bullseye on my head and knew exactly how to exploit my weaknesses. I didn’t give the deck an adequate amount of time, testing it so that I knew how to beat the hate, before eventually dropping it for the more controlling version that people had less experience against.

My convoluted rationale was that I was actually gaining a potential edge for playing a different type of Eldrazi deck. What actually happened was that I was doubling down on my matchups, which is not what you should do when trying to win an event. I couldn’t really press a skill advantage when my matchups were so polarizing. It’s better to have closer matchups as the superior Magic player than to let the cards do the talking.

I knew this, but for some reason I ignored it because I had too many other things to think about when preparing for the event. The best deck is the best for a reason and will always be a better choice than a metagame call in a format as powerful as Modern. Saying that I had a better chance of winning with G/R Eldrazi was just me tricking myself into believing something false. I just didn’t want to play the deck because I was scared that I would play it too poorly to do well with it.

This isn’t the first time I have decided to ignore the best deck in the format due to feeling ignorant about the deck’s matchups. Not playing Four-Color Rally in Houston is the same story. The only testing I’ve done with Standard’s best deck was online, where I put in the 30 matches that I do with every deck in the format to get a feel for everything. It felt as if I was below the curve, since I didn’t pick up the deck right after #PTBFZ and it would take more time than I had to get caught up.

That just isn’t true. The time spent from week-to-week trying to get the new deck I was working on functional was sure as hell more taxing than simply learning the best deck in the format. I really don’t know if I tricked myself into believing Four-Color Rally was too time-consuming or too difficult to win with, but I sure as hell know my biased approach to Constructed Magic has caused me to fail at playing with the best deck each week. This is costing me percentage points when it comes to competitive Magic and has been for some time.

Delver of Secrets, Birthing Pod, Splinter Twin, Bonfire of the Damned, Master of Waves, Sphinx’s Revelation, Underworld Connections. The list goes on and on of cards and archetypes that I chose to ignore most of the time, but then had success with the few times I actually played them.

I’m not bad at Magic and shouldn’t sell myself short when it comes to playing with the highly known archetypes that are in the spotlight for a good reason. I don’t need the crutch of creativity to give myself a surprise edge. It’s time to give up on my hipsterish ways and start playing the best decks, at least for the next couple of months until I evaluate my results and find out if my results have actually increased.

From this moment moving forward, I will only be playing what’s considered the best deck in the format. That doesn’t mean I won’t be innovating. Just because a deck is considered the best doesn’t mean it can’t be improved upon. Owen Turtenwald did that recently when he added Despise to the sideboard of Four-Color Rally.

It just means that my mentality towards Constructed Magic will become more like Highlander. There can be only one best deck and I will seek it out and master it. If something else dethrones it, I will then bow down to my new master and learn its ways.

Who knows if executing this long-term strategy will actually be beneficial to my results, but I will give it an honest try for a while. I’ll also be working hard at getting the rest of the (P)Roanoke roster behind me in my quest for the highest win percentage. What would happen if I got Todd Anderson, Tom Ross, Gerry Thompson, Ross Merriam, Michael Majors, and me to all work on and play what’s considered the best deck in the format? Would this be the obvious best strategy for a group of Magic players that work together? To just all work together on what’s already considered the best deck and make it even better?

One thing I did learn when trying to qualify for the 2014 Players’ Championship with Todd Anderson was that our results would always be better when working on the same deck. We might have started the week off with varying ideas on what to play, but we would always be better off if we worked as a group on one of them. Even if we ended up playing the worse choice, we were better off as a group than working separately on different ideas. So what would happen if the Roanoke hive mind would all work on the same deck?

I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about that in the past few days and believe this to be one of the most important things a group of Magic players trying to succeed can do to up their game. Many of us travel to events with the same people week-in and week-out but always just play different decks. It could be card availability, comfortability, or likability, but most of the players in the car will be on different decks.

This makes it more difficult for these “teammates” to help each other when they have to prepare their own strategies for the weekend. Even if the others in the car wanted to help, that doesn’t mean they would be able to if they are unfamiliar with the subtleties of the specific archetype. This makes it difficult to grow with the players around you.

I would never suggest doing something in this game that would take away from your enjoyment of it, but I do suggest trying this out yourself if what matters to you most is winning. Get your car companions to read this article as well and get them onboard. Everyone working for the same thing will undoubtedly make the whole crew stronger than being divided by deck choice.

Just think about it. Four players, all preparing to play the same deck. That means the gauntlet for the rest of the field could be built and the collective can start working out all of the matchups. This makes it easier for everyone to be working towards the same thing and be invested at all times.

The downside would be sometimes the deck you “want” to play isn’t what you have to play, but the benefits of being a team, learning more from your friends, and becoming a stronger player because of the unity makes up for the fun points lost by not getting to play Jeskai Black again. Maybe it’s too much for some, but I for one like winning with whatever deck you hand me than losing with my “baby.” Just give it a try with me. In two months we will reassess and see if this small experiment was worth it.

Grand Prix Washington, DC: March 11-13!