The Season One Invitational kicks off tomorrow, and it promises to be a spectacular showcase of Standard tech. Dragons of Tarkir hits the streets on the
same day that the Invitational starts, so there’s tons of upside to be found in Standard deck selection. This change of timing – Invitationals have
traditionally been timed far, far later into Standard formats – may be a more important Legacy deck selection consideration than any of the new cards in
the new set.
Generally speaking, a desirable strategy is to have two decks that you know you’re going to kill it with. You know them in and out, all the matchups, how
to sideboard, all that. You’re not going to drop a game at this tournament, and your biggest remaining question is what your token is going to be. For
those of us who live in the real world, split-format tournament deck selection is more of an exercise in risk management. You’re making two choices, and
your goal is to give yourself the best chance of going 13-3 or 14-2 across eight rounds of each format.
My theory of Legacy deck selection at Invitationals is that there are basically two kinds of decks: decks with [3,6] payoffs and decks with [1,8] payoffs.
Put in plain English, the first set of decks is lower-risk but lower-upside – you’re going to win three to six matches out of eight with this kind of deck.
The second set of decks is higher-risk and higher-upside – either you’re going to run the tables or you’re going to get crushed.
The first set of decks is metagame-agnostic midrange decks, typically blue, and typically with solid removal and a variety of interactive elements. I would
put any Delver deck, any Dig Through Time deck, any Miracles deck, and almost any Deathrite Shaman deck in this bucket. Death and Taxes (or Mono-White Vial
Aggro, depending on how much you love or hate The Source) probably belongs here too. Elves, if you know how to play it well, probably goes here too. With
the right sideboard cards, you can have even matchups with the field, and your games will typically be longer and involve meaningful in-game choices.
The second set of decks is far more metagame-sensitive combo, aggro, and prison strategies. I would put Storm, Reanimator, Painter, and Infect here.
Fundamentally, these decks are capable of doing something very contextually powerful, but they somewhat rely on their opponent’s inability to capably
interact with their plan. Furthermore, all are capable of losing to their own inconsistency. They have “unlosable” and “unwinnable” matchups. If you face a
bunch of Sultai Delver decks with Lands, for instance, you will do very well. Face a lot of Storm decks with Lands, however, and you’ll be playing in the
Standard Open on Saturday. By contrast, Sultai Delver is going to do reasonably well against most combo decks, most midrange decks, and most control decks.
It has some very good draws but very few unbeatable ones. It has a reasonable shot to win virtually any game.
You will note that my assumptions about overall expected value are the same across buckets, but that the variance of the latter bucket is higher. This is
important because the other half of my theory of deck selection is that you want to maximize variance in formats where you lack knowledge. You want to play
shorter games with fewer decisions about unknown factors. Fundamentally, if you are the less-skilled player in a game, you should want to push the
strategic makeup of your games toward War and away from Chess. If you have the self-awareness to know that you will inhabit that role in the majority of
your games, I would recommend playing a deck from the “high variance” bucket.
I was having the flip side of this conversation over lunch recently with JD Nir, a friend whose Legacy acumen I respect a great deal. He is an experienced
Storm player, and he was lamenting a recent downturn in his tournament performances with Storm. His core point was that he felt that he was doing
everything correctly and still losing, which was a very frustrating experience for him. Having played Storm for a healthy amount of time myself, I was very
Let’s say that you understand the format as well as JD. You’ve played it for years, you read articles, and you have access to a network of cards such that
getting in practice and having your desired decklist for a tournament is a nonfactor. The only limitations on what deck you play and your performance, for
the purposes of this exercises, are your own choices. Knowing that you possess more format knowledge than your average Invitational opponent and can
achieve a higher level of competency with a given deck than your average opponent, what do you play?
By now, I hope you’ve gathered that my point is “almost anything but combo.” I’m not denying that Storm is a powerful deck, or an internally consistent
deck, or a fun deck. It is all of those. It just has more fixed effects than many other decks: It has one path to victory, it has well-known choke points,
and there are very few deckbuilding or sideboard edges to be gained from it anymore. Practically the only interesting question about Storm in sideboard
games is “will the Storm player sideboard in a permanent that has a strong impact on the quality of opposing disruption?” This can be Xantid Swarm or
Defense Grid shutting off counterspells, Dark Confidant making discard weaker, or Young Pyromancer making purely defensive strategies worse.
Beyond the degree to which Storm is predictable, the counterstrategies are well-known. “How to fight Storm” isn’t really an open question: If you’re
playing white, you have Thalia and Canonist; if you’re playing blue, you have Delver and counterspells; if you’re playing red, you have Red Elemental Blast
and Mindbreak Trap; if you’re playing black, you have discard and Deathrite Shaman; if you’re playing green, tough luck.
By way of contrast, there is no settled strategy for how to play against Sultai Delver. Sure, Lightning Bolt is a good card, but you already play four of
those if you’re a red deck. The more powerful an interactive card you try to play, the narrower its application. When you’re playing against Storm, all you
want is a pile of aces and enough time to deploy them. When you’re playing against Sultai Delver, there are no aces. There are ten and jacks, but all of
that is a lot more contextual. Did you board in Disfigure to fight Delver and Deathrite Shaman? Whoops, they boarded in four planeswalkers and curved
discard spells into Liliana into Jace, and now your removal is embarrassing. Boarded in a bunch of discard? Good luck fighting the top of their deck when
all of their cards are high-powered permanents! You get the idea.
The problem of “how to build and sideboard with and play a Storm deck in Legacy” has been mostly solved, and that is a huge boon to many newer players. It
is also a huge trap for experienced players: Many start near the ceiling of the deck’s skill threshold, but they quickly find it frustrating when they are
blocked from winning tournament after tournament with it despite their intricate format knowledge and their deck’s raw power. You are going to diminish any
format-wide knowledge and experience edge you have by playing a linear combo deck. This is because most of the skill gap between “just picking up the deck”
to “peak capacity” can be spanned by understanding how the deck operates and how many draws you have to win the game in a given situation. Once you’ve
internalized how many action cards versus mana cards you have, cantripping becomes a lot easier. After that, you need to learn how to play against a very
narrow subset of cards in the entire format. Most of the deckbuilding has already been done for you, so there’s no pressing need to come up with hot new
tech. You can peruse lists from the last year or two to figure out which sideboard cards suit your purposes the best: Carpet of Flowers, Abrupt Decay,
Massacre, Xantid Swarm, Inquisition of Kozilek, and a few others. You can do some rudimentary research to learn that you should sideboard out your “+1
mana” cards in a lot in grindy matchups and that you should sideboard out some of your one-mana non-engine cards (usually discard) against matchups where
you need to try to kill them on turn 2 or 3. So if you’re interested in maximizing your skill edge, what do you do?
If you want to leverage your superior format familiarity and deckbuilding acumen, the best course of action is to play a deck with more decisions at more
points in the entire process, not just within games. Sure, “casting cantrips” is a playstyle that rewards skill and punishes unfamiliarity, but so are
“deckbuilding”, “metagaming”, and “sideboarding.” When you’re capable of finding really powerful sideboard cards that are good for a specific tournament in
a specific deck, you shouldn’t be playing the combo deck where the first twelve cards of your sideboard are set in stone. When you’re capable of
identifying turning points of a game and shifting your role in the matchup accordingly, you should be playing a deck that allows you to do that
The caveat of this entire process, of course, is that Magic isn’t all about leveraging your superior format familiarity and deckbuilding acumen. It’s about
winning. When you’re picking a deck, the expected value of (you + your teched-out midrange deck) has to be higher than the expected value of (you + your
optimized-but-still-stock combo deck). Gerry, Brad, BBD, and Huey weren’t fools for playing Sneak and Show in the Invitational where they all made Top 8 –
they were taking advantage of a metagame that had forgotten about Show and Tell. Midrange opponents had very few discard spells or Red Elemental Blasts
anywhere in the decks, and the finals was a predictable Sneak and Show mirror match. If you know very little about Legacy and don’t have a ton of time to
familiarize yourself with the format, it is very likely that your best strategy is to pick a combo deck and hope that it’s the best combo deck to play for
the tournament. If the format is pretty well-understood and you think you understand it, I would recommend playing a midrange or tempo deck.
So what does all of this have to do with the Standard format timing, anyway? I believe that in the absence of strong existing data, it’s best to assume
that your Standard deck selection is highly volatile. Sure, you could have it dead on or miss by a mile, but you have no way of knowing what everyone else
thinks is good before you show up. Having the ability to hedge against high variance in half of your matches is a huge boon, and I cannot recommend it
So what would I play? Either a Delver deck:
- 4 Delver of Secrets
- 4 Young Pyromancer
- 4 Monastery Swiftspear
- 1 Gurmag Angler
- 1 Tasigur, the Golden Fang
…a control deck:
…a Dig Through Time deck:
…or a midrange creature deck:
- 4 Mother of Runes
- 1 Mangara of Corondor
- 3 Flickerwisp
- 4 Stoneforge Mystic
- 2 Mirran Crusader
- 3 Phyrexian Revoker
- 4 Thalia, Guardian of Thraben
- 2 Brimaz, King of Oreskos
- 3 Spirit of the Labyrinth
I understand that there are a ton of options here. That’s the point though: All of these decks are playing fundamentally powerful cards that interact with
most other decks in the format with a high floor on their functionality. You’re going to get to play Magic with these decks, and the type of Magic that
you’re good at playing should inform the rest of your decision. If you’re particularly good at combat math, play a deck with more attacking and blocking.
If you’re good at budgeting removal spells and understanding the nuances of various conditionally-powerful attrition cards, play a deck with those. If
you’re good at systematically shutting your opponent off of potential outs, play a prison deck. You get the idea. All of these decks have ways to reward
playskill and deckbuilding skill.
If you want to know what I personally would play, it would look a lot like Jim Davis’s Sultai Delver list.
The one thing I don’t love is how spread out his cards’ functions are. The dissonance between Dark Confidant and Stifle is jarring. The choice of Stifle
makes more sense when you realize that the deck has zero Thoughtseizes main in a deck that’s clearly dedicated to playing Daze and Wasteland, but Dark
Confidant has played well with Thoughtseize since its creation. I may just be small-minded here, as Jim clearly understands the need for flexible one-mana
instants that provide a broad net of interaction.
I would hate to play this against someone trying to kill all of my creatures. Being able to shift the axis of interaction away from creatures is a huge
part of Sultai decks’ appeal for me, so regardless of what’s going on with the maindeck, I would get some Lilianas and a Jace into the sideboard over some
of the more expensive cards that Jim played.
If you want something that exploits all of the people showing up planning on slinging blue midrange decks that rely on creatures to win and nonbasic lands
to cast them, I would absolutely recommend Lands:
This is the deck to play if you want to try to be on the next level. It’s not the best deck on the merits, but in the context of a room full of nonbasic
lands and small creatures, recurring Wastelands and Punishing Fires is unbelievably good. Of course, one of the problems of trying to be on the next level
is that while you may beat the best, you also may have gotten too tricky for the people who just showed up to have a good time:
And so, if you asked me to pick the best blue creature deck, the best combo deck, and the best control deck, I would give you those three decklists. The
rest of the problem is a combination of risk evaluation and trying to out-level everyone in the room.
But really, if you’re reading this article and don’t know what you’re going to play in Richmond tomorrow, find a combo deck and spend the waking hours you
have left learning how to play with it. It will absolutely provide you with the best dividends on the weekend.