What To Do When You Don’t Know What To Do

Ever been unsure of your deck the night before a tournament? Ever been confused which sideboard choice is actually correct? Pro Tour Champion Ari Lax has been there just like the rest of us, and here, he gives his advice.

It’s Friday night at 1am and you have three decks laid out in front of you. You are wondering if you can find the cards for a completely different 75 before the player meeting starts. I would say “everyone has had this one event,” but based on my experiences playing Magic over the years, this might actually be the natural state of a competitive player.

“Do the work, put in the hours if you want to win.” Sure, that’s great advice, but it doesn’t help you in the moment. And guess what? Even if you are a full-time Magic player, you are going to have off weeks where it just doesn’t work out. Or a string of three Constructed events in a row in different formats where at the end of the day one of them is going to be left hanging. And that’s literally the best case scenario of your number one priority being event preparation all the time. Maybe you have a busy week at your day job, or family commitments or something. Or maybe you did put in the hours and at the end of the day, still have no clue what you want to do, either due to having a complete lack of options or a few too many. Even I end up in this spot, and I’m fricking Captain Tournament Logistics or something.

This end game decision point is going to come up time and time again. You can do everything you want to reduce the number of times it does, and it’s still going to get you. You can learn the way I did, which is spend fifteen years making the decisions and eventually getting better at them. Or you can learn the faster way, which is listening to someone who has put in the time who maybe knows what they are doing.

Step 1 – Accept Your Fate

Listen, we can talk about what to do to find your way out of this spot for a long time, but it isn’t going to change the facts.

If you are scrambling at the last second to make a decision, most of the time the outlook isn’t great.

There is the odd miracle moment where you have to decide between two or three great decks and are trying to figure out which one is a lock to put you in top 8 and which one is merely a good choice, but if that’s your problem, you probably need to stop stressing so much about it. Honestly, I shouldn’t be calling that a problem.

If you are in the process of the last minute scramble, understand what you are doing. You are making an educated guess, and often are making it with less education than you really need. The odds aren’t in your favor for it to go exceedingly well. So stop worrying too much about it. What happens happens. You are going to make the best decision you can and that’s about it. So don’t stress too much, don’t spend the next three hours playing sleep deprived game 1s of a random matchup to get an irrelevant sample size that “helps you think,” get that extra sleep, and let it ride.

Step 2 – Know Your Cutoff

Okay, here’s the part where I get to give advice that doesn’t help you on Friday night.

Odds are, you knew sometime before that exact moment of panic that you were falling behind. Maybe it was Wednesday when you went down to the local shop and realized your untested first choice lost what you thought was a slam dunk matchup. Or maybe it was Tuesday, when you realized you hadn’t tested and had things to do Wednesday and Thursday nights. Or maybe it was weeks before, when you knew your life just doesn’t allow you to sink time learning a completely new deck in and out only to find it doesn’t actually perform as well as you want.

It doesn’t take a crystal ball. That point that you can do the math and know you are going to come up short? That’s your last minute. Maybe you only have one or two more hours of time you can actually put in between then and the Friday night crunch, but that’s better than nothing and lets you line up things that take more real time to process.

Again, there are exceptions. Sometimes you show up to the event with a plan, play a couple of grinders, and realize everything you assumed it wrong. In that case the crucial point is later, but as soon as you realize, it’s time to take action.

But the rest of them? Knowing you are going to end up in the spot you are trying to avoid is the first step to finding a good answer when you get there. Thinking ahead applies to more than just your in game actions.

Step 3 – Take Time-Efficient Actions

When done right, playing games of Magic gives you true, pure information. You make the information from scratch, and as a result, can trust it 100%. You also learn lessons you weren’t expecting to learn and pick up lots of contextual information, like how certain sequences play out and what turning points exist in games.

It also just takes forever. Even best case scenario with minimal time spent shuffling, you are looking at 1-2 hours to get in a solid ten-game set, which isn’t perfect but gives you a point to extrapolate from. That’s Constructed. What about Limited, where you have additional overhead time and a ten-game set is basically trash compared to actual rotating matches? And that is only one deck’s worth of information each time. This is why Pro Tour testing often involves a dozen people playing a dozen hours a day for a week. You just need the raw numbers to actually collect information this way.

Also notice that “when done right” part. As I said above, that half asleep 2am panic set of matches is likely to be riddled with errors in mulligans, sideboarding (or lack thereof), and play patterns. Even with the best intentions, it’s possible to waste time because you just haven’t figured out some key concept that shifts your entire viewpoint.

Compare to something like the undefeated Sealed deck breakdowns I do. In the time it would normally take me to play one or two Sealed events, I get to pull this together. While you can’t learn gameplay patterns or general strategic concepts from it, that’s a lot of information from relatively little time. You can do similar things for Constructed pulling from Magic Online decklists (Note: I specify Magic Online here, as paper events have smaller sample sizes to pull from over the time frame of “very recently”).

If you don’t have the time to do the full training regime, there are quick fixes that get you to partial proficiency. Most of the time this is enough, and honestly they might be better than “normal testing” for a lot of the process.

Step 4 – Borrow Ideas Liberally

Even if collecting and parsing data isn’t your thing, there are other quick ways to get ahead. Like just take ideas from people who have put in the work.

There’s a ton of Magic content out there, and probably 99% of the time the people producing it are just putting it all out there. The other 1% is pretty obvious as they deliberately call out “I’m working on decks for this huge event and have sworn a vow of secrecy to ten other people and a talking cat that swears it lost Kai’s soul to Jon in a Rochester draft.” The difference between what they post and what they play is literally the time delay between the submit date and the start of the event. Find the people who have good foundations for the current format and follow their ideas.

You can also just straight up ask people for ideas. Obviously there’s the “Ask a Pro” route, but you can also ask that guy who plays Amulet Bloom every week locally. If you are going for direct interaction, you are going to get the best results with specific questions to specific people. Some general question like “Do you like Abzan Aggro or Esper Control this weekend?” might get you a general answer like “Abzan but really neither,” where the person you are asking isn’t a specialist so they don’t have more than a general reason why. Something like “What specific things have you found most effective against Control out of Atarka Red?” is going to get you a lot more information assuming it is directed at the right person, and in my experience, even if they don’t know, the person you ask might know who does.

Step 5 – Follow Historical Patterns

You can also just straight up copy a deck and run with it. When you do this, you definitely start out on the guessing side of things, but you can still push it back towards the making a good decision side.

There are a lot of consistent patterns to what deck is good in a given week, or even just good in general. Find the deck that lines up best with these.

Pedigree. How long has the deck been winning for? Things that put up a bunch of results in a single week are probably not a good deck to copy as they are likely just the last flash in a pan deck waiting to be metagamed away. The deck that came out of nowhere and felt especially dominant last week might be a fine choice moving forward, like R/B Dragons did last weekend at the #SCGINVI in Vegas. The deck that has just kept winning and winning over the span of a format, like Mono-Black Devotion did in Standard? Very safe.

Levels Ahead. What won last week? What beats that? The default choice for a given week should be one and a half levels ahead of the week before: beat the deck that won, then prepare to win the mirror once you go deep into the event.

Randomly Powerful. This one comes up most when you are doing a real deep dive. When you are resorting to scrounging Magic Online 5-0 League lists for last minute rogue ideas, look for something that stands out as powerful and unique. If you have reached this point of desperation, finding that really optimized stock list isn’t going to be what you are looking for. You passed that point after the third set of decklists. Also, double down on accepting your fate at this point. Maybe you move all in on something that happens to be the most broken Standard deck of the last five years, but most of the time you will trick yourself into playing a pile this way. For every TwinBlade you find, there are ten Nivmagus Elementals.

Over and Under. If you really have no idea what you are getting into and are just looking for the “best deck,” find something that can reliably go over and under opponents, depending on what the matchup dictates. This basically describes every good midrange and aggro-control deck of the last five years. Beat the smaller decks on raw card power, beat the bigger decks by forcing them out of position early and riding the advantages that result. This even has an added bonus: If you can’t find a way to overpower the small deck or outmaneuver the large decks, then you know which deck you should be playing.

Step 6 – Don’t Panic

This would be Step 1, but no one starts off panicking.

Let’s be real. If you had 40 hours to make the same decision you now have 40 minutes to make, would you use it all well? Would you actually be more sure of your answer at the end?

No? Maybe?

Is freaking out about it going to do anything other than turn that 40 minutes into an effective ten as you spend most of it doing stupid things that don’t help?

Less time is a relatively small change in the big picture, and sometimes actively helps you stop waffling. Ever flip a coin on something and realize mid-flip that you had come to an actual decision? You always have finite time to make up your mind. The decision process is the same inputs and outputs procedure as always.

Besides, if you screw it up that badly, you will now remember what not to do the next time you are filling out all four deck registration forms on the hotel bed.