The Long & Winding Road – The Best Deck

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Monday, September 28th – The question I’m asked most often in relation to tournament Magic is simply, “What is the best deck?” This is commonly phrased as, “What is the best deck in [some specific format]?” For me personally, this question is usually in reference to Vintage and Legacy…

Briefly, before we talk Magical cards, I wanted to share one of my favorite things in life: the Kohl’s Challenge. Before we get to the Kohl’s Challenge, though, it is important that we all have the same understanding the meaning of the phrase “on sale,” which dictionary.com describes as something that is “able to be bought at reduced prices.” In other words, the idea of something being on sale implies that it is being offered at a reduced price, and previously (or normally) was more expensive.

Here’s the challenge: go into your local Kohl’s store and find something that is not on sale. If you find something that’s regular price, you’re a winner! See, every single item at Kohl’s is marked “on sale”, but I’ve got a tip for you — those khaki pants were never “regularly priced at $89.00”. Kohl’s is a flagrant abuser of the idea of the “sale,” something which may or may not have anything to do with today’s Magic content.

I should note that, to my knowledge, no one has ever won the Kohl’s Challenge.

What is the Best Deck?

The question I’m asked most often in relation to tournament Magic is simply, “What is the best deck?” This is commonly phrased as, “What is the best deck in [some specific format]?” For me personally, this question is usually in reference to Vintage and Legacy, because I often talk about those formats and try to pull new players into them… but when we think about, and talk about, this concept of the “best deck” in a format, it is actually a somewhat universal concept that is unrelated to the format in question (although answers are obviously bound to specific formats).

In my opinion, the idea of there being a “best deck” in a format is mostly a trap, albeit one that provides a good jumping off point for further discussion. For example, while it is probably true that Faeries was the best deck last Extended season, we need to reconcile this with the fact that it did not win Pro Tour: Berlin, or Grand Prix: LA, Kobe, Singapore, or Hanover in that same season (those events being won by Elves, TEPS, Zoo, Zoo, and Elves, respectively). Having said that, I don’t think you can argue against Faeries as the best deck in Lorwyn Block Constructed — it completely dominated that season’s events, and during Time Spiral / Lorwyn Standard, Faeries was probably the best deck there as well, despite the fact that it did not win Pro Tour: Hollywood.

Although many of us understand the concept that the best deck is often not the “right” deck to play (and therefore the entire concept of there being a “best deck in a format” is somewhat loose and fluid), in my experience there are just as many players, if not more players, that don’t understand the difference. The trap of the “best deck” is that regardless of what the best deck in any format might be when taken as a whole, every tournament you play is going to have a different “best deck” in terms of maximizing your results. Further, almost no deck is capable of having positive match-ups against every possible combination of legal decks in a field. Consider the following story.

In 1995, the best deck in Vintage (then Type I) was the appropriately-named “The Deck”. The Deck was a control deck developed by Brian Weissman and was critical in our early understanding of card advantage. The particular version I recall from this story involved winning with Fireball and Mirror Universe, and using The Abyss to lock out creature decks. With the rules in effect at this point, you were able to go “negative” in life and didn’t lose until the end of the phase you were in. Therefore, you could tap City of Brass to go to zero life, and then swap life with Mirror Universe. This was done after locking up the game with the combination of card advantage provided by cards like Disrupting Scepter and Jayemdae Tome. Sometimes you were also able to build up enough land and mana from Mana Drain to send a lethal Fireball over for the win. The other win condition at the time was to win using Serra Angels and Moat, however the Abyss / Mirror version had advantages in the mirror match, blanking the opponents Swords to Plowshares and Moats.

My friend, with his “best” deck in Type 1, was paired against a young man who was playing in one of his first tournaments, with an unsleeved deck that was clearly more than sixty cards. I could tell my friend was excited and was already looking forward to an easy first round. He lost the die roll, and was quickly staring down a Forest and a Thallid. Turn two revealed — wait for it — more Thallids. Here’s the problem — Thallids can beat the Abyss provided that The Deck doesn’t see enough early fast mana. Obviously Moat would lock out Thallids — but who expects Thallids? This deck was geared to beat the expected field and the mirror, not casual fungus from Fallen Empires. After two quick games, my friend’s “best” deck in Vintage lost against a Thallid deck that, even today, is probably worth less than $10.

My friend was so shaken by this that within a week, he’d sold all of his Vintage cards.

Defining the “Best Deck”

In theory, the “best deck” in any given format is the deck with the best win percentage across the field. That is to say, given any likely configuration that is put together to form a deck, this “best deck” would have the most positive win percentage overall against anything you throw at it. This is generally the deck that warps a given format around it. Despite Wizard’s attempts to eliminate tier-one cards, there are still tier-one strategies in any given format, including limited formats. As noted earlier, Faeries decks provide a few examples of this from recent constructed history.

Faeries was the best deck in at least two, if not three, recent Magic formats. Its dominance in Lorwyn Block constructed should be beyond debate. It was hands-down the best deck in that format, and dominated the entire season. Why was this the case? The second and third best decks in that format, Kithkin and Toast (in no particular order), were competitive with Faeries to some extent; the tools were also in place in the format to build a dedicated anti-Faerie list. The problem with Lorwyn constructed was that the more one geared their deck to defeat Faeries, the worse their other match-ups became, the Kithkin and Toast decks in particular. The very nature of Faeries — an aggro/control deck that deployed its threats at instant speed, and was often playing with near-perfect information — required specific answers that were typically weak elsewhere. Dedicated anti-Faerie decks could not beat Toast or Kithkin consistently; decks that were around even against Faeries usually had, at best, coin-flip match-ups against those decks as well (see: Doran). Meanwhile, Faeries was able to adapt to its opponents (or the mirror) while still being “Faeries”, relying on its incredible card, tempo, and resource advantages to beat other decks in the format.

Looking at Faeries further, for most of its run in Time Spiral / Lorwyn Standard, it was the best deck in the format — in the abstract. Unlike in Block, however, Standard offered the tools to build decks that had strong match-ups against Faeries while also holding positive match-ups against much of the rest of the field. Because of the way the metagame adapted to Faeries, there were many periods where a deck like Merfolk or Demigod Red (good Faeries match-up, solid against the rest of the field) or Lark (extremely positive match-up against everything that wasn’t Faeries) was actually the best option. The results of Pro Tour: Hollywood led many people to believe that Faeries was overhyped, but in reality it was actually the best deck in the format in the abstract, hands down.

Finally, some would suggest that the best deck in the recent Extended season was Faeries, and its hard to disagree. Because of the mana-fixing available in Extended, Faeries was able to run the necessary sideboard cards to defeat any other flavor of the week, and for the most part only Naya Zoo and Elves proved to have any staying power throughout the season. Much of the comeback with Elves late in the season was due to the format adapting to Faeries, after keying off on Elves coming out of Pro Tour: Berlin. In terms of overall performance throughout the season, it’s quite likely that Faeries was actually the best deck.

The “best deck” for a specific tournament

Again, it is generally understood that the “best deck” in any given format will often not be the best choice for a given tournament in that format. The “best deck” in both situations is also rarely the most “powerful” deck in the abstract.

A recent, striking example of someone identifying the “best deck” for a specific tournament was Luis Scott-Vargas in Extended last year. LSV was able to not only identify Elves as a terrific choice for PT: Berlin, but actually built a version to out-race the mirror — one that was only the “best” version of Elves in that specific tournament, no less. Then, with the format focused on Elves, LSV ran TEPS through an unprepared field at GP: LA, as a group of players from that area had identified the deck as one having a positive match-up against much of the likely field for that tournament. Clearly, his success wasn’t only based on his choice of deck at these tournaments, but it certainly was positively impacted by it.

Was LSV’s version of Elves really the best deck for PT: Berlin, or was it simply the best deck available at the time? With the field so concentrated on Elves, if you were able to channel your inner Nostradamus and have access to the entire season’s deck lists in advance, what would you play at PT: Berlin? I know that personally, I’d probably play Faeries with Jitte and Explosives from nearer to the end of that season, knowing that it had a good Elves match-up and was significantly ahead of many of the Zoo decks played at the time (which were built to beat Elves, not Faeries).

Trying to identify the absolute best deck for a tournament is also a slippery slope in logical terms, because you would need exact foreknowledge of not just the field, but of your specific opponents, as well. If 90% of the field is Zoo, but you play against Faeries the first two rounds, an anti-Zoo deck is the “correct” choice but it obviously wasn’t the “best” choice for you, specifically.

Practical Applications

I generally think that when most people inquire about the “best deck”, they’re asking with a specific tournament in mind, and simply abridging their question. So, “What deck do you think is the best choice for the StarCityGames.com $5000 Legacy tournament on 10/11?” becomes simply, “What is the best deck in Legacy?” Clearly, these are significantly different questions.

Looking at the results from the last Legacy $5K, one might assume that Zoo is now the best deck in Legacy. Its results have been on an upward climb in 2009, starting with a solid performance at GP: Chicago. Zoo has the benefit of an extremely positive Merfolk match-up — Merfolk having become popular due to its positive match-ups against Counterbalance and Ad Nauseam decks. Its other benefit is one of relatively low cost (outside of Goyf), because it does not run blue dual lands or Force of Will. It also has a strong Goblins match-up, because its large one-drops are problematic for a deck looking to connect with Goblin Lackey. Zoo not only beats most of the anti-Counterbalance decks, it also does relatively well against many Counterbalance builds. Like Naya Zoo in Extended, this version of Zoo in Legacy sneaks its aggressive one-drops in before the control deck, in this case CB/Top, has set itself up. It can then win the game using its aggressive burn spells should the Counterbalance deck taps out to deal with the creatures in play. Zoo also has support spells out of the sideboard, such as Krosan Grip and Vexing Shusher, to handle Counterbalance and resolve crucial burn spells.

Zoo still suffers from one fundamental flaw, the one that makes Legacy so interesting: it’s a fair deck. All it does is make guys and sling burn. Zoo does not have a good match-up against Ad Nauseam combo, nor does it have a particularly good plan against Ichorid, both of which have the potential to win the game before Zoo even takes a turn. Many Zoo lists don’t even sideboard anything specifically for Ichorid, choosing to take aim at the most popular decks in the format instead of worrying about those with the most raw power. Then again, until recently, Ichorid has had limited success at larger Legacy events and saw much less play in that format than it had in its Extended heyday or in modern Vintage. Slowly, that seems to be changing.

Ichorid has many good match-ups in current Legacy, especially now that decks like Goblins (with its multiple sacrifice outlets to Exile Bridge from Below) and Iggy Pop (a fast combo deck that could not only race Ichorid, but also ran maindeck Leyline of the Void) have faded from the metagame. While ANT is not a terrific match-up for Ichorid, it is still winnable, and ANT remains a risky proposition because Merfolk and CB/Top are still in the format.

As always, there are risks when playing a fair deck in Legacy. Playing Zoo indicates that you believe you are more likely to play against Counterbalance/Top, Threshold, Merfolk, and Goblins than you are to play against ANT and Ichorid. Much of the framework for this line of thinking centers on the fact that combo has been a risky proposition in recent Legacy events due to the prevalence of Counterbalance decks. With the format beginning to stack up against Counterbalance (which I have said in the past is the “best” deck in Legacy), Zoo becomes an appealing choice, especially when cost is factored in; similarly, outside of the expense of the Lion’s Eye Diamonds (which not all players run), Ichorid is an extremely cheap deck compared to most Legacy decks.

If you were to ask me what the best deck in Legacy is, I would unquestionably answer that some version of Counterbalance/Top control is the best deck. However, if you want a suggestion as far as what to play at the $5K in Philly, there are a number of equally viable options:

• As the best deck, CB/Top should be on the short-list. It is solid against aggro and combo strategies and tends to beat much of the randomness that one sees at Legacy events.
• Zoo is the best aggro deck, and for newcomers to the format, it can be played relatively well with minimal knowledge of the history of Legacy and at a relatively low cost.
• ANT seems to be decently positioned, as it has a very good Zoo match-up and it has seen much less play in recent months, meaning there may be room to out-play or out-maneuver unprepared opponents.
• Ichorid seems well positioned in the short-term, as the format is still relatively unprepared and there still is no consensus “best” Ichorid list in Legacy.
• Goblins is also an interesting choice that has been performing well lately, as cards like Warren Weirding and Stingscourger give it needed flexibility against modern Legacy decks.

Given those options, as a player, you then need to determine your own comfort level with each deck, figure out how you think the metagame will align, and address any card availability issues. As we can see, we’ve now determined that there is another category of “best deck”:

• Best deck in the format
• Best deck for a given tournament
• Best deck for one specific person to run in a given tournament

Experts in Their Fields

One of the mental hurdles most Magic players need to clear is this idea that there is a singular “best” deck in a format; too often, I see people jump from deck to deck to deck, trying to find the one deck that is the best in a format, only to find that the format has rotated or changed completely before they find this “Holy Grail” deck. Similarly, many players need to address the fact that they view too many opinions (about card quality, match-up strength, draft order, and so on) as absolute facts. Even the “experts” often make mistakes, especially when they deal in absolutes. I’ll leave you with some gems from the experts of the past — keep these in the back of your mind as you continue to read some of the bold predictions about Zendikar.

“I think there is a world market for maybe five computers.”
-Thomas Watson, Chairman of IBM, 1943

“The wireless music box has no imaginable commercial value. Who would pay for a message sent to nobody in particular?”
-David Sarnoff’s associates in response to his urgings for investment in radio in the 1920s

“We don’t like their sound, and guitar music is on the way out.”
-Decca Recording Co. rejecting the Beatles, 1962.

“Stocks have reached what looks like a permanently high plateau.”
-Irving Fisher, Professor of Economics, Yale University, 1929.

Brief Thoughts on Zendikar:

• Lotus Cobra is being overrated and overvalued.
• Mindbreak Trap will not see significant Vintage play (unless TPS manages to dramatically increase its percentage of the field), but it is an elegantly-designed solution for the Cascade problem in Standard.
• The Planeswalkers in this set fail to impress me and seem much weaker than those in Lorwyn or Shards of Alara. Actually, weaker isn’t really correct — they’re reasonably powered, but over-costed or with too little starting Loyalty.
• Iona is worth testing in Oath and as a Dread Return target in Dredge decks, but it is quite possible that this card isn’t as good as current options.
• Quests — sorry, not feeling these at all.
• Bloodghast and Sphinx of Lost Truths should revitalize Dredge in Extended.
• Sadistic Sacrament will probably see some Vintage play, and I think it is an incredibly well-designed card for that format.
• Scute Mob is Standard playable, and I think it’s a very well-designed card.
• Ravenous Trap is one of the most powerful Dredge hosers yet; its strength is being downplayed thus far.

Matt Elias
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Voltron00x on the forums (SCG, TMD, The Source)