Deck selection is the most appealing aspect of Magic; the idea that you choose the weapon that suits and engages you is a major draw to gamers. They
identify with their tools and grow attached to choosing them. It’s what makes the thousands of cards printed over the years relevant. It’s what separates
us from the animals… and poker players.
Of course, deck selection is also historically difficult while remaining one of the clearest contributors to tournament success. It’s been made easier in
the modern era with the popularization of both Magic Online and excess digital content. Gone are the days where a man’s frenzied IRC ramblings were the
best resource for a PTQ hopeful. These days, you can click your way to a decently built deck on a whim, eliminating a great deal of the legwork for
familiarizing yourself with any given format.
Today, I want to talk about deck selection and situations in which the “best deck” might not necessarily be the best choice. Shockingly, it’s a subjective
evaluation inherently linked to the context of the event you’re playing.
Know Thy Enemy
The first and most relevant element to consider is your expected metagame. If the deck tearing up MTGO and the Grand Prix circuit has a bad matchup that
happens to make up a third of your local FNM, then no matter how good that deck is, you’d probably be better off playing something else.
It’s not always possible to get an accurate and trustworthy prediction of an upcoming metagame, so you have to temper your expectations with reason.
Predicting a metagame that doesn’t exist is worse than useless; it’ll have an active, negative effect on every choice you make. Laying down Mono-Blue
Devotion when you predict a field full of U/W Control that winds up having none is an obvious example, but the effects run deep. The little things, like
playing a Sire of Insanity over a Rakdos’s Return, can leave you incorrectly positioned by a few percentage points that manifest over and over throughout
Recently, I made this exact error in a Limited event: Grand Prix Portland. That’s right–deck selection exists in Limited! We positioned a R/u aggressive
deck in the center with me as the pilot, both because the deck suited me and because it would enable me to finish matches more quickly (one way or another)
and help my teammates on either side.
Sound logic–but the vast majority of other teams we played employed very similar logic. I played almost exclusively red mirrors, and my maindeck was
poorly configured for them. I had aggressive drops vulnerable to Forge Devil and Inferno Fist while Research Assistants and Coral Barriers sat in my
sideboard. Had we built the maindeck to be a grinder U/R deck with fliers and burn, I could’ve sideboarded into the aggressive deck against vulnerable
opponents and dropped less game 1s to those other red decks.
It’s easy to call this results-oriented thinking, but it’s really not so outlandish to assume other teams might follow the same logic we ourselves used.
The U/R deck’s looting and additional flying creatures really enhanced its ability to present the strongest sequence of threats and answers, in contrast to
the consistently aggressive plan of the original deck. I should’ve tried to play longer games where these cards would be at their best, rather than shorter
games with worse creatures, especially if I thought my deck was good, and I could play well enough to gain an edge on skill as well.
So, pick the deck that’s best suited to defeating your opponents. See you guys next week!
During the approximately two weeks I had to test Constructed prior to Pro Tour Magic 2015, I spent the early days building a gauntlet and collecting
thoughts on matchups and new cards. Naturally, one of the top decks going into–and going out of, for that matter–the event was U/W Control. While I was
adamant that the deck should be considered and that it would likely be among the five best decks for the tournament, I was equally adamant that it wasn’t a
deck I could consider playing.
Why? Because I knew that I personally had several significant disadvantages to overcome.
The first was that I hadn’t been playing Standard for most of the season, and I hadn’t played Revelation control decks even when I did. That left me with a
significantly lacking base of knowledge to draw on, meaning I’d be playing catch-up. For a PTQ or SCG Open event, I believed I might be able to make up
enough of the gap, but in a tournament comprised of world-class players I already had to concern myself with the skill gap. Jamming enough games and
learning my way around all of the matchups that many of them would already know was an additional large obstacle.
In this particular case, the mirror match was my largest concern. I could extrapolate some other matchups from having played “the enemy” against U/W
Control, but the mirror left me with only what I’d read or could theorize. Because I expected Revelation decks to be one of the three most popular decks
(an assumption separated from actual merit), I didn’t want to doom myself to constantly facing the mirror, the matchup in which I’d be most disadvantaged.
My second issue was time. Could I have studied constantly and worked very hard to overcome all of this? Maybe. But imagine if I did all that only to
discover U/W Control wasn’t the right deck for the tournament–then I’d have flushed away tons of time and effort. This obstacle was compounded by the fact
that U/W Control decks also play generally longer games, meaning testing any Revelation deck as much as say Burn or Mono-Blue Devotion would simply require
twice the time for the same number of games played.
In an ideal world, of course, you’ll always have the time to learn the best deck… but since when do we live there?
Lastly, there was the chance that Magic 2015 would change things a bit more than expected and leave me playing a control deck that was twisted slightly
incorrectly for the field. As things turned out, I’d say this was in fact probable–between Rabble Red, Mono-Blue drying up, and the advent of Jund
Planeswalkers, I’d probably not have landed at an ideal list for the Pro Tour.
No, it was better to stick with what I already knew and make the most of my time. That’s exactly what I did, and after optimizing two other decks I found
Jund Planeswalkers, an archetype that was well-positioned for the event. I certainly could’ve used my time better, and I did wind up falling victim to a
failure to optimize, but the risks involved in Revelating outweighed the potential for gains, and I stand by my decision to write that archetype off for
Of course, you have to be careful. Become too hung up on your favorite toys and you might find yourself playing decks like, say, G/R Tron or Goblins well
past their prime. [Editor’s Note: I have no idea what you’re talking about…]
No Easy Decks, Only Easy Decisions
People like to talk about how “hard” decks are to play, and they often base these on very flawed concepts. The most recent accusation has come against
black midrange decks, thanks to Thoughtseize, Hero’s Downfall, and Pack Rat… but if these decks are so easy to play, then why do Owen Turtenwald, William
Jensen, and Jared Boettcher consistently outperform everyone else’s results? Is the argument that the best players are just luckier with these “simple”
There’s only one remotely reasonable metric for deck complexity: the average number of decisions per game the deck requires.
Whenever you make a decision in a game of Magic, that’s your skill manifesting itself. The best players make the largest percentage of correct decisions,
correlating to their larger win percentage. Your goal over the course of building the deck and playing a tournament is simple then: come as close as
possible to making 100% of your decisions correctly.
Declaring a card like Thoughtseize “simple” is backwards. It’s obviously powerful, but it’s powerful because it can do so many things! Every turn 1
Thoughtseize generally offers two to six potential decisions, and that’s ignoring the decision to cast it on turn 1 in the first place.
One of the best pieces of advice I received about Magic was from Ben Stark, when he told me that the key to playing good Magic was to remove as many
difficult decisions from your games as possible, so that when one does come up you can focus and make the right decision. That’s the essential value of
playtesting–once you know the range of effective responses to certain opposing plays, you won’t have to puzzle through them all every single time.
However, the logic extends past tactics and well into deckbuilding and deck selection.
Purposefully choosing a deck that won’t constantly challenge you has several perks. The most obvious is that over the course of a long tournament you’re
not going to grow as mentally fatigued. Having time off between rounds to recuperate and rest your brain has value that’s difficult to measure, but it’s
I’m not saying you should actively choose the easiest available deck. The more accurate inference is that you should choose the deck whose decision trees
you’re most familiar with!
On the Open Series, players would often ask me about their Legacy deck selection or advice for what deck they should play at an upcoming Legacy tournament.
It’s a diverse and varied format that doesn’t receive enough love in online content, so I sympathize with the difficulty in choosing your weapon, but my
advice was always the same: play the deck you know best. Your experience will pay dividends.
My roommate recently asked me what I thought the best deck in Modern was for PTQs. I said Birthing Pod but that I wouldn’t play it and didn’t recommend it
for him. The truth is that my personal experience and the decision-intensive nature of the deck would combine to make for an exhausting tournament, even
assuming I was capable of playing the deck at a high enough level to win in the first place… which is unlikely because I’ve actively avoided testing the
Of course, my roommate followed with the obvious question: If Pod has always been so nuts, why haven’t I put in the time? Truthfully, I’ve expected it to
be banned for over a year considering how obviously head and shoulders above the field it had been, and I didn’t want to get invested.
Shows how much I know, right?
Naturally, players new to Modern and Legacy or familiar with completely unplayable decks might struggle to find footing. If they intend to play Legacy
regularly, I encourage these players to identify an engaging deck that appeals to them and begin mastering it in order to achieve that familiarity. Don’t
hop from deck to deck!
If, however, they’re not looking for a project and just want a one-time weapon, I tell them to find the most powerful deck that will challenge them the
least for wins. My most typical recommendations in this vein are Reanimator, Sneak and Show, Painter, and Belcher. Do I think these are simple decks? No,
not really (though strong arguments could be made for Belcher). What I do believe is that these decks are capable of providing a higher number of game wins
that aren’t very decision-intensive when compared to other decks.
Turn 2 Griselband, good luck.
Turn 2 Emrakul, good luck. Sometimes it will have haste.
Blood Moon you.
If you’re walking into a tournament with a skill deficit, an experience deficit, or both, then play a deck that generates free wins! Once again, the ideal
world would see you both at the top of your game and prepared, but I understand we don’t live there. In the absence of a perfect scenario–or the means to
create it–you can still employ deck selection that favorably increases your edge.
The next time you’re facing uncertainty as you open up the cardbox and start leafing through the binder, try to think of how you can make your choices work
for you beyond just the rules text on the cards. Odds are there’s plenty of room to improve out there, and the only harm is you find yourself thinking a
little more deeply about the same decisions!