Should You Switch Decks?

We’re not talking about an audible. We’re not talking about tournament morning panic mode. We’re talking about looking at a metagame you’ve dominated with the perfect deck! But nothing lasts forever. Is #SCGINVI the moment where multiple formats shift right out from under us?

There are two types of Magic players: those who pick a deck and stick to it, and those who change decks every week. Some people in the second camp like to stay one step ahead of the metagame at every tournament, and some of them just get bored and like to switch it up to keep things interesting.

For the most part, I’ve lived in the first camp. From U/W Delver to Maverick to Mono-Blue Devotion and Elves, I’ve made my name championing a single archetype for months at a time. Personally, I find the edge to be gained by metagaming to be overstated. You play a very small fraction of the field in any given tournament, and in large events, the field is so varied that you’re always dealing with a significant unknown factor in determining what you’re likely to play against.

Switching decks constantly also puts an incredible burden on you in terms of preparation. Learning a deck in a week is no simple matter, so the opportunity cost of learning a new one each week is high. However, playing the same deck allows you to build on your previous knowledge, try out small changes, and test niche sideboard plans. Over time you’ll be familiar with even the fringe matchups for your deck, or at least have enough of a theoretical grounding in your deck that you can reliably devise good plans on the fly.

The downside of staying on one deck is attachment. Having such an intimate knowledge of one deck increases the opportunity cost of switching to any other deck–you give up the knowledge edge that you’ve painstakingly gained over weeks, months, or even years. You often find yourself rationalizing a poor deck because it’s the best deck “for you.” But Magic is a dynamic game and metagames can and will shift in significant enough ways to make change the best option.

Currently I am facing just such a decision. I have been playing Dredge in Modern since August, and the upcoming Invitational in Atlanta is the first time I am questioning whether continuing with my weapon of choice is wise. So today I am going to go over why this crisis of confidence arose, and the variables that are most important in my decision. I’ll also place those variables in a more general framework so that those of you who struggle with the same decisions have a theoretical guide with which to make them.

What’s Wrong?

When I first picked up Dredge in August, I was playing a poor list with Greater Gargadon and Bridge from Below and I didn’t have much experience with the archetype, although I’ve played with and against Dredge in every format, so I had a head start on the mechanics. Despite these disadvantages, my first few tournaments were a resounding success, with an Open win and another Top 4 finish.

The reality was that Modern Dredge was an emerging archetype that the metagame was not prepared for. This happens a lot in Modern, since there are so many powerful, linear decks in the format and it’s impossible to prepare for them all. Dredge was a minuscule portion of the metagame so devoting sideboard space to it was difficult, leading to a huge advantage for those of us who picked up the deck.

In the weeks that followed those finishes, Dredge’s stock in the format rose dramatically, and I expected a commensurate increase in hate, which made me wary of the playing the deck even then. But because of Modern’s glut of powerful, linear decks, the increase in hate was relatively small. Most decks could only afford two or three sideboard slots for graveyard hate, and it was easy enough to steal a post-sideboard game when they failed to draw one or you had an answer for a Grafdigger’s Cage or Rest in Peace.

It looked like Dredge was destined to have a place at the top of the Modern metagame as a deck that was too powerful and consistent to be reasonably hated out in most circumstances, akin to Infect or Affinity. And the hits kept coming when Cathartic Reunion was revealed. The third enabler slot was contested between Shriekhorn and Tormenting Voice, and this was a clear upgrade that made the deck even more explosive.

Cathartic Reunion lived up to its hype and made Dredge a clear deck to beat, which ironically is what has me in this situation. My previous fears that proved to be exaggerated now came to fruition as Cathartic Reunion made Dredge a big enough target for players to bring more hate. In browsing MTGO decklists, Leyline of the Void shows up in non-Dredge sideboards now, and most players have at least three pieces of hate rather than the previous maximum of three.

An extra card or two may not seem like much, but when dealing with a linear deck, drawing hate cards represents a huge increase in your chances of winning. Adding a fourth hate card increases your chance of drawing one in your opening seven from 31.5% to 39.9%. If you estimate that that increases your overall chances of winning by 4-5%, that’s a significant difference.

And more than increasing the number of hate cards, players are utilizing better hate than before. Grafdigger’s Cage and Rest in Peace are powerful, but they are unreliable in the face of Nature’s Claim and the latter is often too slow. I advocatedforRavenousTrap,SurgicalExtraction,RelicofProgenitus,andTormodsCrypttoseemoreplay and that has indeed happened over the last few weeks. These cards are much more difficult to play around and form a much stronger post-sideboard plan in the matchup when utilized in combination with the more powerful but fragile options.

These issues may seem unique to Dredge or linear decks in general, but it’s really just the specific case of players learning the new matchup. Whenever a new deck emerges, its progenitors are going to have a significant edge in understanding the matchup, and as long as Dredge didn’t become too popular, most players were happy to play a few hate cards and move on. But Cathartic Reunion forced everyone to sit down and test against the deck, which has significantly reduced the knowledge edge its players had.

This happens with linear and non-linear decks alike. W/U Flash was a relatively unknown quantity at the Pro Tour and I’m sure that contributed to its incredible performance there. But that knowledge edge diminishes with time so long as the deck is important enough to make it into most testing gauntlets. It took longer than I thought for the process to occur with Dredge, but it has happened.

It’s always going to be the pilots of the deck that know how best to attack it, so you should be reading and looking at lists to give yourself a gauge of how other players are approaching their matchup for you. You’ll invariably see those plans evolve to be more and more in line with your views, at which point you can start considering playing a new deck or adapting your deck to regain the knowledge edge.

Can You Adapt?

For any deck, this is a question that can really only be answered by testing. Fortunately, you can use your experience as a guide here and develop a new plan as players adapt to what you were doing before. The results of your testing should provide a clear answer, and you can proceed as appropriate from there.

The one general principle at play here is that it’s easier for nonlinear decks to adapt than linear ones. Linear decks have a much more rigid structure, more slots in their deck are devoted to their engine, and without that engine, the deck folds. That limits the amount of tinkering you can do both in the maindeck and in the sideboard.

Dredge is even more rigid than other combo decks since you need to have a functional ratio of lands, enablers, dredgers, and creatures to recur. The only interaction in the maindeck is Conflagrate and the occasional Darkblast, and every card you trim in sideboarding increases the deck’s fail rate. Moreover, because of the deck’s strange mechanics, you don’t want to draw naturally, thus forcing you to have your answer in your opening hand or shortly thereafter.

The answers to permanents are clear for Dredge: some combination of Nature’s Claim, Ancient Grudge, Abrupt Decay, and Lightning Axe handles everything you need, but answering Ravenous Trap and Surgical Extraction is much harder. Without a hand disruption spell like Thoughtseize or Collective Brutality, it’s impossible to see those hate cards coming, and slowplaying every game to limit their effectiveness is likely to do more harm than good in a fast format like Modern. Giving up a single turn is enough to change a lot of races, so you’re often forced to play into it and cross your fingers.

Hope is never a good plan.

Metagaming in Magic is an evolutionary game. It’s “adapt or die,” so answering this question quickly is paramount. If you can adapt, you gain the same advantage as bringing a better-positioned deck, since your opponents will once again be behind in the matchup. Even better, they will be confidently behind, thinking that they have the dominant plan.

What Are My Other Options?

The last question to consider is one of opportunity cost. If you’re tight on time for whatever reason — maybe you spent too much trying to adapt before figuring out it wasn’t going to work or you’re preparing for multiple formats and had to prioritize the others first — then your other options are likely going to be slim.

The goal is to give up as little of your knowledge edge as possible, so the obvious choices are decks you played previously in the format, hoping one of those decks is now well-positioned. If none of those decks is appealing, then playing the same deck one last time and hoping for the best may be your best option. I did this at Grand Prix New Jersey in 2014, playing Elves in the Treasure Cruise era because I didn’t feel confident playing Delver mirrors. Some tight play and timely draws led to a 13-2 finish, so all hope is not lost.

If you have time to learn a new deck, then you have a new metagame puzzle to solve. You can run through the gauntlet with some potential decks you think are well-positioned and work from there, but there is a useful shortcut to keep in mind in selecting those potential decks. If you suspect your current deck to be hated out of the metagame, then you should take a look at its natural prey, which should now be free to reemerge in its absence. Even better, most players will be dismissing those decks while they focus on the new bogeyman, so their sideboards will likely be worse.

For Dredge, those options would be Jund/Abzan and Affinity. My hatred for midrange decks will keep me away from the former, but Affinity may be a good option, and one I have some experience with to boot.

The tension between gaining an edge in deck choice and gaining an edge in deck knowledge is tough to balance. In certain formats it’s been easier to stick with one deck for a long period of time, while others have been dynamic enough that you need to switch more often. But in both cases you need to stay current with the metagame, looking at tournament results and reading articles. Playing the same deck for months is not an excuse for complacency, and treating it as such is a recipe for disaster.

If you stay current, then you should find yourself at a point where you can anticipate the metagame shifting against you and proactively adapt to it or switch decks. If you wait until the evidence is clear, then you’re often a week behind the ideal, while successfully anticipating where the metagame will go will leave you one step ahead. Whatever I play in Atlanta, the goal is to be ahead.