Positive EV – Choosing the Correct Deck for Playtesting

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Wednesday, January 13th – Choosing the correct deck for testing purposes can be almost as important as choosing the correct deck for an approaching tournament. Perceived wisdom says that the Best Deck in the format is usually the correct choice… but when do you choose to test the deck that beats such a deck?

Today I am going to talk about two different approaches on how to test a format, when the metagame is known and one deck is dominating (like Jund in the current Standard, or Faeries in the one before). The first is to playtest the best deck of the format a great deal, finding the best version of the deck in this process, and thus you’ll have more experience than your opponents who are fighting with a similar strategy. The second is to try and build decks that have a lot of success against the best deck, decks that still have a fair amount of equity against the rest of the field. It often makes sense to combine both methods, especially if you accidently find a strategy that has a lot of equity against the best deck. If you don’t find such a strategy, you can go back to the best deck with enough time before the tournament.

Playing the Best Deck

When you are playing the best deck in the format, you are pretty much guaranteed to have a solid result. No matter what match up you are facing, or what players, your deck has a lot of strength by itself, and therefore you are happy playing almost anybody. As you tested the deck more than most of your opponents, you also get a great advantage in mirror matches. On the other hand, almost any player you face will have tested a fair amount against the best deck, and they are very rarely in any given situation in which they don’t know what to expect or what to do. This makes it very hard to win tournaments with the best strategy, as you are likely to face a deck in the Top8 that is built entirely to beat your strategy.

When does it make sense to play the best deck?

Most matchups are pretty easy to play out with the best deck, but the mirror match gets pretty complex. This has the advantage that a ton of players that have just picked up the deck will be doing really well against the metagame, even though they are not playing very well. It is possible that you’ll be facing those weaker players later on in the tournament, and, as the mirror match is more complex than all the other match ups with the deck, your opponent is very likely to make mistakes. In addition, he won’t have as much experience as you in the mirror match, and thus he’s very likely to play a standard decklist, while you might have found some secret tech that could tip the mirror match in your favor.

By playing the best deck in the field, you are looking for a solid result, and not a tournament win. In an event like Nationals, a Grand Prix, or even a Pro Tour, you are very happy if you make it to the final eight. As soon as you are in the Top 8, you are very likely to face a fair amount of players that did test for the event as much as you. They know how to play the mirror match, or they found at strategy that has a lot of equity against the best deck. This makes it really difficult to end up winning a tournament, as your chances in the Top 8 usually are not a lot higher than 12.5%.

Another reason to choose to play the best deck is if you are not sharing cards with other people, and have a hard time playing whatever deck you want at any given tournament as a result. The best deck usually remains at the top of the metagame for a long time, and doesn’t need many new cards to update it. It pretty much guarantees that you’ll have a solid deck choice for a fair amount of tournaments without having to end up playing a suboptimal decklist.

Playing the Deck That Beats the Best Deck

When you are playing the deck that beats the best deck, you will end up with very polarized results. Sometimes you will end up not facing any of the best decks at all, and thus you’ll go under against strategies you didn’t expect to face. But when you are playing many matches against the best deck, and also manage to face other matchups against which you have equity, your results will end up very promising more often than not. In addition, you’ll see a lot of mistakes from your opponent, because they often don’t have any idea what you are doing, or what cards you might have. When the mirror match of the best deck is all luck, and you can’t find a way to improve the deck for that match up, it is often the right call to avoid playing the best deck, instead trying to beat it, as it can be very frustrating to lose to weaker players because they made the most obvious deck choice.

When does it make sense to play the deck that beats the best deck?

Your metagame has to contain a huge number of players running of the best deck, in order to make it worth giving up equity against all the other decks. If you take the current Extended format as an example, this strategy is not very good, as even if you find the best deck, it is very unlikely to be played in enough volume to matter, as there are so many different deck choices. It is often helpful if there is a second-most-played deck, which is well known; if you can manage to beat these two decks, even if you might end up losing to the rest, it could be in your favor. If the decks are popular enough, it is absolutely worth it.

In order to create the deck that beats the best deck, you also need a lot of time to playtest, knowing that you will not end up with any usable results other than more experience in the format. You already need some experience with the best deck already, as only by seeing it working can you exploit its weaknesses.

This strategy is very useful if you’re looking for nothing less than winning the entire tournament. A lot of the best players playing in the tournament will end up choosing the best deck as their weapon, and those are the players you will face in the Top 8. During the swiss rounds, people might not know what you are doing ,and therefore you might get a lot of equity because your opponents will play badly against the strategy you chose.

It is important to know that not everybody is able to build a new strategy to beat the best deck. This shouldn’t stop you if you see an interesting strategy you could improve upon. There are always decks on the net that have a ton of potential but are not yet fully discovered, such as Elves before Berlin, or Turbo Fog when Alara Reborn was printed. Coming up with a complete new strategy is not only very difficult, but it’s also is very frustrating, as a very high percentage of the decks you are building will fail.

That’s all for the deck choice in playtesting… now I want to talk about an interesting topic that can arise during playtesting. Whenever you are testing a match up against a friend of yours, the question comes up if you know your opponent’s deck. Questions arise, such as whether you should play an opening hand you might keep against an unknown player, but one that is terrible in the chosen match up, or if you should play around a certain card from a new deck if it absolutely destroys you but you didn’t see it yet during the pre-boarded game you are playing right now.

There are arguments for both sides of this problem. The most important argument for not knowing your opponent’s deck is that in a big tournament, especially a Grand Prix, your opponent is very unlikely to know what you are playing. If a match up is really good if they don’t know you are running a certain card, or if they can only keep certain opening hands, this can be very important during playtesting, as it has a big impact on the results and therefore it might change the deck you end up playing. Even though that is a good reason to not know your opponent’s deck, I still think the results help more if you know it. If you are doing well at a tournament, you will always end up in the situation where your opponents know what you are playing — or if you are one of the best players in the field, they might even scout you. Also, if you try not to know your opponent’s deck during playtesting, and then play into a card that absolutely wrecks you, using the excuse “you couldn’t know he is running the card” is destroying your results. Sure, your opponent might play into the card if he doesn’t know it, but later on in the tournament you are very likely to face players who either know you are running the card, or players who are not mindless automatons and just make the most optimal play if you don’t have anything. If you are testing for a PTQ or another tournament where you have to end up as the winner, testing also becomes more real for your Top 8 matches. If your strategy ends up only working because your opponent doesn’t know what you are doing or which cards you are running, and you end up getting slaughtered in the Top 8 because they see what’s going on, the result is not very satisfying. Even though it might be helpful to show your test partner a new deck before you play it, I often like to play a few games before I do that. It is really interesting to see what happens if your opponent really doesn’t know what you are doing, and isn’t simply pretending that he doesn’t.

You can definitely make a case for both testing methods, and I am not one hundred percent sure on which one gives the better results. Both approaches definitely have their upsides, but both fall down in different scenarios.

That’s it for this week, Thanks for reading, and good luck in qualifying for San Juan. May you find the best method to playtest for these events!

Manu B