Strengths Versus Weaknesses In Deckbuilding

Ross Merriam provides an amazing analysis of how hate cards can hate you out as much as it does your opponents. Want an advantage at #SCGMKE? This is the place to start!

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<p>One of the most common questions I get from players looking to improve their decks (or critiquing mine) is “How can I beat card <a href=X?”

How can my aggro deck beat Languish?

How can my red deck beat Kor Firewalker?

All of these questions are focused on one goal: to eliminate all potential weaknesses of a given deck. It would seem to follow that once your deck has no weaknesses, it is in its ideal or optimized form.

But to me, this mode of thought ignores a critically important aspect of deckbuilding: the accentuation of strength.

It is very easy to look at your deck and not worry about the things you do well. If your deck is great at killing creatures or well-positioned against ramp decks with plenty of counterspells, then you can mentally file those decks away as dealt with or solved so you can move on to solve your deck’s weaknesses.

This paradigm of deckbuilding is certainly well-meaning and can do some good things in forcing you to critically examine your deck’s weaknesses, but it is ultimately flawed because it is built on fear and risk aversion. No one likes sitting down at a tournament and feeling helpless in a match of Magic. We would prefer to feel in control of our own destiny at all times, with a reasonable chance to win every game and every match.

This is why many players gravitate towards midrange strategies, because those decks have the most diverse range of tactical tools and strategic options at their disposal. They can be aggressive when necessary or take a more reactive role if the matchup or their draw calls for it. There is a calmness and a confidence that comes from having all of your bases covered.

But it is ultimately a misleading confidence, because having no bad matchups does not necessarily make a deck better than another. Consider the following (heavily simplified) hypothetical:

A metagame is comprised of four decks, A, B, C, and D, in equal proportion.

The following table describes the matchups between each deck. Note that each cell reports the win rate for the deck in its row against the deck in its column:

























The expected win rate of each of these decks across the entire metagame is as follows:

A = .50

B = .51

C = .50

D = .49

The best deck by this metric, Deck B, has two unfavorable matchups but more than makes up for it by its great matchup against Deck D, while the solid but unspectacular Deck A is exactly what you would expect it to be, average.

I am not trying to argue that midrange decks or decks with a similarly low spread of expected win rates are inherently flawed because of this. There are plenty of times when they are the best choice, and it would take very small adjustments to the above scenario to make Deck A have the best expected win rate. The point I am trying to make is that they tend to be overrated because of their perceived lack of weaknesses. But not having any truly great matchups is a weakness, and when you bias yourself towards eliminating weakness, you are not optimally choosing or building decks.

For the purposes of this article, I will focus on how this concept affects deckbuilding rather than deck choice, since of the two I think it is the less-understood and more-important.

Deckbuilding is a game of economics. You only have 75 slots to work with and you have to make the most of them. Each slot you devote to one card is a slot you cannot devote to thousands of others, so there is always a cost to adding a card to your deck. That splash is never truly free, and there should be no sacred cows. And the goal is not to design the deck with the fewest weaknesses, it is to design the deck that wins the most.

These two metrics are of course correlated. The variance in Magic means that the ceiling for any given matchup is below 100%, and there will be diminishing returns on adding cards to help against one deck after a certain point. What our human tendency for risk aversion does is cause us to greatly overestimate those diminishing returns. As we saw in the example above, Deck B was able to overcome its two unfavorable matchups with one truly great matchup.

So when you are building decks, it is important to allow for the possibility that the best course of action is to use the last few slots to accentuate your deck’s strengths rather than compensate for its weaknesses. Making this determination is incredibly difficult, and the margins are often very slim, but these slim margins make the difference in competitive Magic, so it behooves you to search them out wherever they are.

Upon accepting this conclusion, the obvious next question to ask is whether there is a heuristic that can help determine whether or not the best option is to focus on bolstering a deck’s strengths or to shore up its weaknesses, and indeed I think there is one. In my experience, the dividing line is in how proactive a deck is.

Reactive decks are looking to force interaction with their opponent and come out ahead on those exchanges, usually winning a long, attrition-oriented game. In those games, you have to be able to counteract your opponent’s strategy and answer individual cards. Moreover, since the games go longer, it is more likely your opponent will find their problematic cards, increasing their negative impact on your expected win rate in the matchup. Thus, there is more to gain by using slots in your deck to counteract that impact.

The most relevant example of this concept is in looking at how decks like Esper Control and G/B Seasons Past construct their removal suites. Grasp of Darkness, Ultimate Price, and Languish may cover them against 80% of the format, but you still have to worry about the other 20%. That is where the more expensive but wide-ranging removal spells come in as supplements. These are cards like Ruinous Path and Anguished Unmaking that can handle planeswalkers and other problematic permanents like Evolutionary Leap and Pyromancer’s Goggles.

Overloading on the more generic removal spells will cause you to lose tempo too often against smaller creatures, while playing too many of the cheap removal spells will leave you vulnerable to what they miss, so it is a balancing act between the two that needs to be continuously reassessed as the metagame shifts. Coincidentally, this is also why Declaration in Stone is so powerful.

It has a rare combination of efficiency and versatility that makes balancing those priorities much easier, although giving up the Clue is still a downside for attrition strategies, which is why I was not surprised to see control decks move away from it.

The other way control decks can compensate for their weakness to certain cards is by incorporating aggressive elements into their sideboard. While this seems antithetical to the idea of a control deck, it is an important tool to have in the world of Modern Magic where the threats are very powerful and wide-ranging enough to make the prospect of answering them all directly quite daunting. You can often catch your opponent off-guard and put them in a defensive position they are unprepared to be in.

A prominent example of this was Grand Prix Memphis last year, where many players did well by sideboarding Fleecemane Lion in their Abzan Control decks, allowing them to stop early creature swarms, pressure planeswalkers, or simply attack their opponent early and thereby force them to abandon their plan of playing solely for the long game. Few players would keep in cards like Bile Blight or Lightning Strike against the Courser of KruphixSiege Rhino deck, and even if they did, trading one-for-one in the early game is what Abzan Control wanted to do anyway.

Fleecemane Lion still represented a significant threat in the late-game thanks to its monstrous ability, so the plan was incredibly effective.

Siding in aggressive elements in a reactive deck is a juke that players should employ much more often than they do, since it is often the most elegant and efficient way to address the weaknesses of reactive decks. It is elegant because it avoids the pitfalls of the threat-answer equation, wherein the burden is on the person presenting the answers to have the right ones rather than the person presenting the threats, and it is efficient because you do not need specific answers for each problematic card, so you can solve more issues with fewer slots.

The metrics of elegance and efficiency are the ones I weigh most heavily when evaluating the merits of a sideboard plan or a flex spot in my deck because they give you an idea of how high the opportunity cost of adding those cards to your deck is as well as how well they fit into what the deck is already doing, which is a good proxy for effectiveness. The Fleecemane Lions in those sideboards took only four slots and had a huge impact on a number of matchups, which is as good as you can hope for.

On the other side of this equation, the more proactive a deck is, the more you will be better served by accentuating the deck’s strengths and ignoring its weaknesses. Proactive decks look to avoid interaction and would rather overpower their opponents, often in the early-game before their defenses can be properly established. By virtue of pressuring your opponent, you can often end the game before their problematic cards come online or put them in a position that the card does not do enough to catch them up. A dead opponent poses no problems.

Moreover, proactive decks often need to assemble a critical mass of cards, whether small creatures, burn spells, or combo pieces, in order for their deck to run effectively, and every reactive card you add to “solve” a problem makes the other cards in your deck worse. This opportunity cost is what is most often missed by players building proactive decks and makes their deck lack the consistent, closing power that they need to succeed.

Adding reactive cards also puts you on the wrong side of the threat-answer equation mentioned above, since you need your opponent to draw their hate card, you to have your answer, and finally to be able to line them up appropriately within the tempo of the game. The downsides are quite severe, but the fear of losing to hate causes us to imagine the best-case scenario as being much more common than it actually is.

The classic example of this problem is Burn decks trying to answer lifegain with cards like Leyline of Punishment. On the surface, Leyline seems like a great option because it can come down underneath any life gain cards your opponent has and lets you execute your gameplan without fear.

But Burn is a deck that is heavily reliant on having a critical mass of burn spells, because adding up to nineteen is the same as doing nothing. Every card you draw that isn’t a burn spell is a win for your opponent. Even worse, even when it works as intended, it often will not be appreciably better than a burn spell would have been.

In most Burn decks, the cards deal between three and four damage on average. The most common lifegain cards are typically comparable to that rate (Lightning Helix, Kitchen Finks, Obstinate Baloth) with a few doing better (Timely Reinforcements, Feed the Clan) while being less common.

In order for your Leyline to be effective, you have to draw it and your opponent has to draw their lifegain card, and even in that scenario you are at best coming out one or two points ahead of where you would be if that Leyline of Punishment were a burn spell, and often coming out even. But in the scenario where you draw Leyline of Punishment and they draw no lifegain, you are potentially losing a game you otherwise would have won by missing out on a valuable three damage, and the problem only compounds itself when you draw multiples.

Even cards like Rain of Gore that seem to deal your opponent damage are ineffective because your opponent can simply not cast their lifegain card, effectively trading it for your Rain of Gore. Because of its reliance on critical mass, Burn is not interested in trading. It is a proactive deck looking to limit interaction.

This is why cards like Skullcrack and Atarka’s Command have proven to be the most effective answers to lifegain. Even though they only offer relief against one card and force you to have it at the right time, they’re still three-damage burn spells. They function more appropriately within the Burn shell across the entire spectrum of games while also singlehandedly winning games against lifegain when your cards line up well.

This same principle also applies to the recent trend of sideboarding Eerie Interlude in Humans as a reaction to Languish. Yes, there will be games where you are able to pull ahead by enough that you can leave up three mana, they are forced to Languish to survive, and your Eerie Interlude is a blowout. But there will also be games where your opponent contains the battlefield early and you are forced to apply very little pressure or play into their Languish because you cannot leave up three mana. There will also be games where they do not draw Languish and you are effectively down a card, thereby making Languish less important for them to have in the first place.

The only time narrow answers to hate cards like that are appropriate is when your opponent is overly reliant on their hate. You have to be able to win the games where drawing your answers at the wrong time is not too difficult, and for underpowered aggressive decks, this is rarely the case. You will be better-served by accepting some reasonable losses to Languish and taking the wins that your powerful early game will get you.

The need to accentuate your strengths in proactive decks means that you should sideboard minimally, to keep the core of your deck as intact as possible. This is no more evident than in combo decks, which often devote forty or more slots to making sure they can function as consistently as possible.

Storm in Legacy plays Chain of Vapor and Abrupt Decay in its sideboard to deal with problematic permanents, but that does not mean they should come in in every matchup in anticipation of some form of hate. While the downside of not having an answer to Chalice of the Void is enormous, you will actually lose more game by diluting your deck or not having your answer line up against their hate card effectively.

What is happening is that the huge effect of not answering a Chalice of the Void occurs in a small band of games, while the much smaller but still significant effect of having your answer do nothing occurs in a much larger band of games, making the overall effect larger. The first effect is more prevalent in our minds simply because it is easier to notice and lament in hindsight.

Please note that I am not advocating Storm players not bring in answers to known hate, but that they do not try to preempt hate that is unlikely to be there. The equation shifts significantly once you have complete information, since you can now reliably expect to have to answer hate.

Over my years playing Magic, making the wrong decision between accentuating strength and mitigating weakness is among the most common deckbuilding mistakes I see players make. For a long time, it was something I understood only intuitively, so it was hard for me to convey the underlying principle to players who were looking to improve. It is also a very complex equation, and deviations from the general principle are appropriate under specific circumstances.

Magic has a large, but ultimately finite set of tools, and if you lack the correct tools, no amount of theoretical underpinning will compensate. As such, I would encourage you to at first familiarize yourself with these principles, and as your comfort level grows, you can begin to experiment with them and tweak them as appropriate. Only by personal experimentation can you truly master these principles and most completely eliminate the pervasive fear that makes us lose sight of them.

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