Every deck has its weaknesses. That statement sums up the direction that this article is heading, but what makes one deck stronger than another? Is it all about the metagame or does the brute power of a deck make it the obvious choice for a large-scale tournament? In this article I will address general weaknesses that decks possess upon creation as well as go into specifics of some of the decks in the current metagame.
What makes a deck tier 1? What makes your deck choice better than mine? Those questions are easily answered by a few logical observations. Tier 1 in my opinion is defined by:
Using "good" to describe a deck is very ambiguous and reasons are needed for placing that tag on it. When you create a deck it has to pack a punch. These days decks that have the most power are the decks that you’ll see dominating the top tables. When I mention power and power level I’m referring to the ability to either deliver a swift/consistent twenty damage, being able to apply strong pressure with the ability to disrupt, having a consistent combo engine that wins early in the game, or the ability to control the game in every aspect (board control, card draw, and efficient win conditions). If your deck can do one of those descriptions well or if you see a deck at the top tables and it appears to fall under one of these categories, it’s one step closer to becoming a tier 1 deck.
Once the deck has proven itself by a strong finish or two the deck will begin to catch on. Obviously strong finishes aren’t necessary in order for a deck to gain popularity and momentum, but it doesn’t hurt. The decks that I’ve crafted over the years have had a few strong finishes especially when more skilled players wield them like a Frank Karsten or Luis Scott-Vargas. Magic: The Gathering writers have the ear of potentially thousands of players so it’s easy for us to increase the popularity of decks, but I feel that writers that are also active players have a better shot of convincing the masses.
Magic Online also provides an avenue for players to access thousands of decklists that prove to be powerful on the Internet. It has revolutionized how metagames are determined and provides a continuous flow of new deck ideas as well as revamped classics. With Magic Online finishes combining with live Magic finishes, decks are given tier levels and they stay in that tier as long as the decks gain popularity and momentum from their original accomplishments. No one can argue that Caw-Blade or Delver existed in the tier 1 slot and the reason is not just its power level, but also how many people sleeved it up. When Skullclamp Affinity was 70% of the field at Regionals it was inevitable that six of the Top 8 would be Affinity. Did that mean Affinity was good? Of course it was good, but if 20% of the field played it instead you’d see fewer break through into the elimination rounds. Tier 1 decks need to gain momentum and popularity in order to stay on that pedestal and attempt to dominate formats.
A tier 1 deck can’t lose to a lot of decks consistently. If your deck can’t beat a few decks that are played and that are popular, it won’t be able to withstand a large-scale tournament with a lot of rounds. Playing a deck that loses to Delver on a consistent basis would result in disaster most of the time; of course sometimes you can dodge a certain deck like the plague depending on the tournament size. I played at GP Baltimore and finished 8-1, but I didn’t see one Delver deck until day 2 when I played it five times ending with a 2-3 record against it, sadly. My deck has a good matchup versus Delver, but I experienced a large amount of mulligans and mediocre hands that didn’t allow me to win all those game 3s I got to. I also need to learn to mulligan slow hands, and that lack of discipline caused a few losses as well.
Matchups are very important to guide a potential tier 1 deck to the top and if the matchups aren’t there, then you will see that deck fall to lower tiers. Magic is a perfect example of survival of the fittest, and decks that don’t adapt quickly fall. A beautiful example is U/B Control. You’ll notice that pros and average players alike see a few articles or weak finishes that hurt the viability of the deck, but all of the sudden it’s winning GPs and proving to be a force online. This is no accident. The deck never got worse with the emergence of new cards nor did other decks make it less viable. U/B just had a rougher matchup against Humans with Thalia, and that was enough to scare players even though with a few adjustments U/B can dance with the little first striker. Matchups are what make or break the viability of decks and how high they remain on the played totem pole.
The difficulty level of a deck to play is something that most players overlook. A few articles ago I gave a breakdown of the different Magic mentalities and how I know which players tend to play aggressive decks, control decks, and combo decks. Today I’ll not bash anyone who prefers the aggressive strategy, but I’ll speak more generally about how some decks are harder to pilot than others. If you are a Patrick Chapin or Michael Jacob you can pilot a five-color control deck that has the most intricate mana base, one-ofs and two-ofs with 100% logic and planning behind each decision. When I pick that deck up or other players do we tend to…mess up to say it in gentle terms.
Even when each card is explained the best they possibly can through articles or tournament reports, there’s no way a wave of thousands of players will be able to operate that type of deck to a format-warping set of finishes. I think the five-color control decks played by some of the best are fantastic, but I know the only way to crush with a control deck for me personally is when I create the list with my own logical breakdown of what cards will be used for and when. Difficulty of a deck is a barrier that has prevented many decks from becoming the best in the format. I remember picking up Caw-Blade for the first time in a PTQ and easily Top 4ing with it then losing to the mirror after a mulligan to five game 3. Caw-Blade lovers out there will tell you the deck was hard to pilot, and I’ll tell them they are sadly mistaken.
I believe that Planeswalker Control can survive the four steps in order to become a tier 1 deck. In the midst of Delver variants, Green Aggro, and Wolf Run, Planeswalker Control can completely dominate if played correctly. Before I address each matchup specifically, let’s take a look at the newest version, which is only a few cards away from what was posted in the last article as well as I what I played at GP Baltimore.
Let’s take a look at a few of the matchups you’ll see.
Matchup Analysis Rating System
A: Great matchup
B: Win most of the time
C: Can be tough but usually will come ahead
D: Split games and sometimes fall behind
E: Terrible matchup and lose more often than win
Wolf Run (Traditional)
The matchup of Planeswalker Control versus Wolf Run is similar to the U/B game. You have a few early disruption Mana Leaks, but instead of being able to keep most things off the board some of the Wolf Run threats will land and cause some havoc. Luckily Day of Judgment is miles better than Black Sun’s Zenith and provides a board sweeper you can guarantee after an Inferno Titan or Huntmaster lands to cause you problems. The maindeck Curses allow a post-removal spell victory on a Primeval Titan and almost every time leads to you winning the game.
The best thing about this matchup is that with the use of Liliana and card advantage engines through draw, board sweeps, and planeswalkers, you simply out-resource the ramp deck and have them commit their last threat to your third-to-last answer. The matchup plays out to an empty board with them holding a second Sphere of the Suns and you having a commanding lead with a Curse in play, removal spell in hand, and Alchemy in the yard waiting to go. Play this matchup enough and you’ll confidently ask to play against it in these large-scale tournaments. Even though U/B Control beats Wolf Run around pretty badly, this Planeswalker Control deck has the ability to defeat it over and over again. Play against Wolf Run with confidence.
Whenever a new deck rises to the top of the leaderboard, control must make adjustments to defeat it. In this case there are no adjustments needed. R/G Aggro is a very fast and aggressive deck that can catch many control players off guard with undying creatures, cheap threats, and planeswalkers that sting pretty badly when they land. The reason why this deck gives control a run for its money more so than the traditional Wolf Run decks is because you have to deal with many earlier threats and they still can drop one of the Primeval Titans later in the game to defeat you the old fashioned way. Fear not though fellow mages who take their time to win, we are ready for this menace without having to adjust our sideboard or maindeck.
Lingering Souls is a boss against this deck and allows for you to take out hasted Geists and set them up for the usual board sweeper that green just can’t overcome. I have learned to not fear turn 1 Forest for many years because the decks that I usually run have good matchups against green beaters. In this matchup you burn Mana Leaks early to slow down the pressure, block creatures to kill with Lingering Souls, and set them up for the Day of Judgment with backup from planeswalkers. That sounds ideal and sometimes you have to deal with a Garruk or Huntmaster the hard way, but overall the matchup plays out similar to Wolf Run.
The only worse part about this matchup is that instead of them drawing ramp spells here and there, they’ll draw an extra threat or two throughout the match. Despise is a game-breaking card against this deck as well as Volition Reins/Karn out of the sideboard. The ability to use Despise or Mana Leak with Snapcasters early leaves your green enemies low on cards and you able to easily control the game. The sideboarding strategy down below is for the heavier green versions that don’t run Hellrider, and the only difference there is a Purge or two might help in the match. I do warn that some games you might get blown out and punished for keeping a slow hand, but most of the time you will watch little Huntmasters and Dungrove Elders fall to the Wrath of God and stare from the graveyard at a Gideon Jura hopelessly.
Delver (Esper, U/W)
The new version of the Fae can be tough at times to overcome by traditional control decks, but I’ve achieved a list and a strategy that leads to hard fought victories. In no way is this matchup a bye or easy, but the addition of Curse of Death’s Hold has allowed me to steal many wins game 1 that I had no business winning. I’ll give you the rundown of that strategy. The game starts off with an early Delver or Ponder to set up the flipped nuisance. Delver is nothing but a luck-based coin flip right off the bat turn 1, and if it doesn’t flip immediately and attack for three on turn 2 you’re already way ahead with any reasonable opener. The game plays out with use of targeted removal on Delver immediately or the Captain if they’re Esper. After removal is used liberally, then the real game begins as you attempt to resolve planeswalkers, Lingering Souls, and every spell besides Curse in your deck. Once they burn all their counter magic (which they will) or you have enough to pay the Mana Leak (or Mana Leak backup on your own Curse) then the game ends.
When I refer to the game ending there I don’t mean like Wolf Run where they could rip consecutive Titans, but the game ends as in they can’t rip anything to survive that. Captains might pose a problem with the Esper build, but they simply draw the removal spells that we can’t use on Invisible Stalkers and Geists in the other version. My record against Esper Delver is much better than against U/W delver based on the fact that the Lingering Souls sorcery speed strategy makes it easier for us to resolve one of our bomb Curses or random other spells that completely destroy them when they resolve. More experienced Delver players will not counter Sorin, allow removal, and ignore Lingering Souls to stop the card that really beats them…but those players are one in a million. Expect Sorin or any play to receive a swift Mana Leak or Snapcastered Mana Leak. The matchup can get out of hand with that turn 1 blind flip Delver or with four or more counterspells in a row, which happens more often than it should.
This is easily the toughest out of the aggressive matchups. Each creature from Doomed Traveler to Hero of Bladehold is a problem, and even though we have the resources and answers to all of their threats, there’s one trump card…Honor the Pure. The slamming of Curse of Death’s Hold doesn’t end the game like it does against Delver, but it’s still a nice one to have especially after board. Game 1 is a grind and if you win the die roll you’ll probably win with the ability to Mana Leak on turn 2. If you’re on the draw, you’ll watch Thalia land on turn 2 or a Grand Abolisher, then the match gets pretty tough and a loss might be in your future. This is the most coin flip dependent matchup, and if you’re on the play or draw there’s a completely different strategy to achieve victory.
On the play you one-for-one them at every opportunity in order to survive to a Gideon, Consecrated Sphinx, or a Liliana/Sorin with a clear board. Some games you end up blowing them out with Curse, but most games they’ll find at least one Honor the Pure and those games truly are close battles. I make the matchup sound like a nightmare, but it honestly is a true 50/50 matchup until sideboard. Like most aggro decks, their hate for control doesn’t really catch us off guard whether they max out Thalia or bring in some Geists; we still are going to try to kill all of their guys and drop a bomb. Mana Leak is truly an inferior card in this matchup and Ratchet Bomb is a godsend.
A Bomb on two allows our Curses to become devastation for any Humans player that is banking on Honor of the Pure to win. Ratchet Bomb also frees any of our walkers from their Oblivion Ring bonds and is a non-targeted removal spell for their problem cards at the three slot. Despise is a fantastic replacement for Mana Leak against Humans as well because they’re super creature-heavy and it allows you to drop one of their Geists, Crusaders or Heroes before they can become a problem. In multiple scenarios, after a turn 1-2 Despise I Snapcaster and do it again to completely strip their hand of issues that we would’ve faced otherwise. I give us 40-45% to win game 1 and 60% to win games 2-3, but like I said those numbers are averaged from going first every other time. Play this matchup tight and smart in order to come away with a victory.
Control Decks (Grixis, Mirror, U/B)
Call me a weird, but I enjoy the control mirror with this deck and with previous control decks I’ve wielded. I lost to Pat Cox playing U/B in the mirror, then defeated Owen Turtenwald the next round and I enjoyed both matches at the last StarCityGames.com Open: Richmond. The Planeswalker Control matchup versus other control variants is a tricky one to break down. Some games you’re light on land and threat-heavy and those games you’re trying to jam down a Geist, planeswalker, or Lingering Souls right off the bat. When you have the land to play chicken with the control opponent, you wait until you have three up for all spells besides Lingering Souls and card draw in order to make most of their deck useless against you.
Game 1 is a little rough in the control mirror, and I’ll go as far to say you’ll lose most of them mainly because they have more card draw and instant speed control spells forcing you to tap out and leave yourself vulnerable to a Karn at any point. They also play more counterspells than us, so we’ll need the sideboard to defeat them. Ali sold me on Volition Reins so that gets a one slot and Karn Liberated has always been my bro so he gets a solid spot in the sideboard as well. Karn was moved to the sideboard in order to lessen the frustration of a seven-drop in the opening hand against Delver, but he’s too good to cut him altogether.
After board you have six extra threats and that tough matchup gets much easier. I played against Grixis Control in Richmond and slammed a turn 3 Geist. I asked if he had a Mana Leak and he didn’t, and I knew the game was over at that point. Game 3 was a battle, but I ended up resolving a couple threats later in the game because of the density of win conditions, and he fell to a Consecrated Sphinx with a Batterskull attached. U/B Control is the toughest, and I’d give it a 50/50 shot to win where the other variants are much easier especially after board. I was 1-1 on the trip versus control mirrors, but I’m confident that if you sideboard correctly and use your resources wisely the control matchup can be delightful.
Rating: C+ to B-
Zombies (U/B and R/B) and Mono Red
I’ll lump these two decks together because the boarding is very similar and the matchups are almost identical. I…love playing against these types of decks. Barring a God start and something sluggish from us, this matchup is fantastic. Every time I play against decks like these I sigh with a breath of relief because the maindeck is ready to battle them easily. The Doom Blade against Zombies is awkward, but besides that all the planeswalkers are devastating to the aggressive plan. Liliana is the weakest versus the suicide strategies, but Sorin and Gideon are the best cards against their gameplan. The black vampire tokens make it so Sword of War and Peace is ineffective and the army of Lingering flyers makes impossible to kill your planeswalkers as they chump/trade.
Sometimes R/G Zombies is able to Brimstone Volley chain you, but most of the time you get to around eleven life and stabilize. Game 1 is obviously the roughest, and if they want to defeat you they must win that game. Once game 2 comes around and Celestial Purges, Snapcaster-Purge, more Batterskulls, and Bombs for the Swords come into play, the world gets much scarier for little red men and Zombies alike. Curse of Death’s Hold is also a game ender, making their scariest one-drop obsolete and making Mono Red come at you with twelve (minimum) dead cards. The only tough part of this matchup is the sideboarding because every card seems to be super effective versus these decks.
I hope this matchup analysis helps you even if you decide to play a different control build or any deck for that matter. I’ve always found it helpful to know what your opponents are planning in reference to sideboarding, strategy, and thought process for deckbuilding. The more you know about your enemy, the better your chances are for victory. I also want to refer to the beginning of the article and how a tier 1 deck is crowned. Don’t feel that the tier 1 decks are the only decks you need to worry about and definitely don’t feel that you’re forced to conform to one of these decks. Any deck you create or tweak can end up on the top of the tiers by advocating it and churning out decent finishes on Magic Online or in live magic. I hope you all try out Planeswalker Control and help catapult it to the top with me. Thanks for reading and see you next time friends.
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