Why Playing The Best Deck Is Often Wrong

“Just play the best deck” is time-honored advice, but it’s also overused! Get Todd Anderson’s important theory about deck selection on your way to SCG Minneapolis!

If you consume Magic content, chances are you’ve heard of someone claiming
that there’s a “best deck” in a format and that you should play it if you
want to win. In fact, Emma Handy wrote
an article last week
stating that if you don’t play Humans in Modern, you’re making a mistake.
Last week, I would have agreed with her, if only because I wanted to
confirm my bias toward the only deck I’ve had success with in Modern in the
last year.

But at what point does playing the best deck actually become a

Modern is an extremely volatile format, featuring thousands of cards for
you to choose from when building your deck. Trying to perfect your
sideboard is an almost impossible task, because you’re stretched thin by
needing specific answers for specific matchups. But when two or three decks
start to see a lot more play, building your sideboard to specifically hate
out those matchups becomes more justifiable.

But it isn’t just about sideboard strategies. When three decks are on the
top of the format, any archetype that attacks those decks without mercy
usually starts to gain an increase in popularity. In the last few months,
both Humans and B/R Hollow One saw a huge boost in both online success and
live play results. And, to compensate, an old Modern nemesis saw a

Affinity is inherently favored against decks like Hollow One and Humans.
Traditionally, when two linear decks skew on interaction in favor of speed
or synergy, the one that comes out on top is the one with the fastest
clock. That’s why we saw Ross Merriam playing Elves in that same
tournament. Assembling a two-card infinite combo revolving around two
creatures is relatively easy when your opponent only has a handful of ways
to interact with them.

The same is true for Affinity, except in a slightly less degenerate
fashion. Instead of going for a two-card infinite combo, Affinity chooses
to lean on the aggressive side of combat tricks and synergy between Cranial
Plating and the rest of their deck. They’re usually pretty fast out of the
gates thanks to Mox Opal and have some draws that just roll the opponent
before the game even starts. And if Humans is the deck they’re up against,
Etched Champion plus a Cranial Plating is usually game over.

And so what if those decks happen to draw their Reflector Mage or Lightning
Bolt? Do you think Affinity isn’t used to grinding out games through five
or six removal spells from the hands of Jeskai Control or Jund? Sure, those
games are hard, but imagine if your Jund or Jeskai opponent only drew two
pieces of interaction the whole game and the rest of their draw featured a
bunch of creatures that couldn’t block or deal enough damage to close it
out in time.

The tricky thing about Humans being the “best deck” in Modern is that it
generally has the same gameplan of the other linear aggressive decks,
except its creatures are inherently disruptive. Against the spell-heavy
decks of the format, Thalia, Guardian of Thraben is strong. In matchups
where your opponent is reliant on a single card or interaction to win, you
can break that up with either Meddling Mage or Kitesail Freebooter. And on
top of all that, your clock is pretty sick thanks to both Champion of the
Parish and Thalia’s Lieutenant.

But Humans is just another type of deck on this linear/aggressive spectrum.
You’re fairly interactive even though your deck doesn’t use traditional
interaction. It’s only when you face off against an opposing deck on this
same spectrum that breaks through the disruptive creatures when Humans
starts to struggle. If Thalia, Guardian of Thraben and/or Meddling Mage
aren’t very good, then you can bet your bottom dollar that you’re about to
get run over.

Humans is also one of those decks that can just lose to its own draws. With
four copies of Noble Hiearch and four copies of Aether Vial, you can lose
games by drawing one of these “iffy” spells on the wrong turn. The second
Aether Vial is pretty bad and the third is basically useless. And even
though each Noble Hierarch can result in more damage via exalted, your
deck’s strength relies on playing out a bunch of creatures and pumping

But even if you have a bad matchup, Humans is incredibly resilient at
times. Ross Merriam lost in the finals to Humans with his trusty Elves
deck, and that’s a matchup that I feel is lopsidedly in his favor. I’ve
lost to Affinity quite a few times while playing Humans, but Cedric Philips
claims that he’s beaten it over and over in the last few weeks [CEDitor’s Note: I have! Mulligan aggressively!]. The matchups
between these linear aggressive decks are volatile at best, because
sometimes your deck just doesn’t function.

Ultimately, Modern is full of explosive decks that need very specific
methods of interaction. A few copies of Lightning Bolt will rarely save you
from their onslaught of threats. Their decks are usually designed to fight
through that type of removal. It’s only when you hit them with stuff that
takes two or three threats out at a time, or completely invalidates their
entire strategy, that you get a leg up.

Why You Shouldn’t Play the Best Deck

Most professional players and writers will tell you to always play the best
deck. In a lot of those scenarios, telling you to play the best deck is
justifiable because it will give you the greatest chance of wining whatever
tournament you’re preparing for. But the trick here is that, in most of
these instances, the “best deck” is only the best deck when it comes to
Standard. When you start delving into older formats, things tend to get a
little stickier.

The idea behind a “best deck” is simply based on how well it defends
against the hostile forces around it. In Standard, the metagame is usually
small enough to figure out the best strategy, and the card pool is not
nearly big enough to overcome its strength. Right now in Standard, you’ll
see the best players in the room gravitating toward R/B Aggro centering
around Heart of Kiran. It put up crazy numbers at Grand Prix Birmingham and
continued to do well in the Standard portion of the Team Constructed Grand
Prix in Toronto last weekend.

But does this idea of a “best deck” really hold up as you get into Modern,
Legacy, or even Vintage? At some point, the card pool is usually big enough
to correct a threat that one could consider the “best deck.” In Legacy, for
example, people have touted Grixis Delver as the best deck for months, but
I’ve seen it lose repeatedly in camera matches. I’ve played with it and
against it, and I’ve never felt like it was doing anything remotely broken.
Sure, Deathrite Shaman is an annoyance on occasion and some of their draws
will snowball out of control, but I never felt like the Grixis Delver
player was ever at a significant advantage before the match started.

When you get into Modern and someone tells you that Grixis Death’s Shadow
and Eldrazi Tron are the best decks in the format, how does that fact so
drastically change in less than a year when so few cards have been added to
the card pool? What new additions did people find to their decks that
completely invalidated these strategies? Did something get banned? What’s
the deal?

The truth is that Modern is a gigantic format and hasn’t been around for
all that long. We’re still learning new interactions and finding new decks.
Less than a year ago, Humans didn’t really exist, yet most of the cards in
the deck were available to build a deck out of. I mean, did Kitesail
Freebooter really give the archetype the punch it needed to break out into
the scene? While Kitesail Freebooter is quite good in the deck, it isn’t
exactly a Modern all-star.

The “best deck” in Modern is an illusion. There is no best deck because the
format will compensate for whatever major strategies are currently
dominant. If the current Modern format is dominated by Hollow One, Humans,
and Affinity, then the rest of the format will evolve to capitalize on
that. And each week, a new best deck emerges that attacks the other best
decks, and we eventually get to a cycle.

The most recent Modern Pro Tour was won by Lantern Control. Two weeks
later, one of the biggest advocates of the deck in Brian Braun-Duin said
the deck was unplayable. Too many opponents were coming prepared with Stony
Silence, Shatterstorm, Tireless Tracker, etc. Even decks that aren’t
normally able to beat something like Lantern Control were skewing their
sideboard in response. And as a result, Affinity got a lot of splash

As the format developed from that Pro Tour, any deck that could put a hurt
on Lantern Control was eventually walked into the conversation of “is this
the new best deck in Modern?” And when the pair of Bloodbraid Elf and Jace,
the Mind Sculptor got unbanned, everyone kept wondering if the decks
playing these two powerful cards would ultimately end up being the best

Just stop.

Modern is not about a best deck or best card. Sure, every once in a while
they print Treasure Cruise or Thought-Knot Seer and everything goes to
hell, but for the most part Modern is just a minefield that we have to
grudgingly slug through because Standard only has three playable decks. And
I say that with love, because Modern is truly an awesome format. Where else
can you find someone playing hits like Codex Shredder and *checks notes* Hyena Umbra. It’s wild out here y’all. And that’s
beautiful and amazing, and I honestly can’t wait to play another ten Modern
Opens on the SCG Tour in the next three months.

The “best deck” will always be contextual and rarely permanent. Either the
format corrects itself or something gets banned. That’s how it’s always
been and how I see it for the foreseeable future.

Modern for #SCGMINN

One major problem of the Modern format correcting itself is that it tends
to take a little while. A lot of people will continue to play the same
deck, regardless of how popular their bad matchup is, which is how you get
a “best deck” in the first place. Right now, Humans is only good because so
few people are playing G/W Hexproof or Lantern or Affinity. Each of those
three decks have major weaknesses that can be exploited, which is a huge
turnoff for newer players. I mean, who wants to have their two best cards
destroyed by a single Ancient Grudge or Engineered Explosives?

Sometimes the best counters to the top decks in the format are not widely
considered fun decks to play, and that’s a relatively dangerous situation
for Modern to be in. When your options are “lose to Humans” or “play an
Ensnaring Bridge,” then many people will just bite the bullet and hope they
don’t play against a Kitesail Freebooter. But desperate times call for
desperate measures.

I don’t fault people for continuing to play the same deck week after week.
After all, there is merit to becoming a master of your archetype. Just look
at Caleb Scherer and all the success he’s had on the SCG Tour. Almost every
single Top 8 or victory has come with his trusty Storm deck. He knows his
strengths and he plays to them. In a lot of ways, that’s admirable. And if
he continues to play Storm in the face of Humans being one of his worst
matchups, there will be one or two tournaments in the next ten or so where
he doesn’t play against Humans all that much. That’s just math.

But I’m not that type of person. I can’t play the same deck week in and
week out. I must be “smarter” than everybody else and try to “metagame.”
And this week, since Humans is all the rage, I’ll do you a solid. Here’s
the Humans list I’d play this weekend at #SCGMINN. And since there’s only
going to be one copy each of Lantern Control and G/W Hexproof, I’d just
hope to dodge the ten or so people playing Affinity and you’ve got it in
the bag.

Hot Takes

1) LOL Auriok Champion

One person played it in one tournament like a month ago and now every
single Humans sideboard has two copies. Don’t bother.

2) Dire Fleet Daredevil sucks

What are you casting? Removal spells from Jund to kill Tarmogoyf? Gut Shots
out of the sideboard in the mirror match? The first time I tried Dire Fleet
Daredevil in the sideboard, I couldn’t figure out what the heck it was for.
I still don’t know. Everyone I’ve talked to has no idea. Are we just big
idiots? The answer is yes, but I still don’t think this card is good in the

3) If you play this deck, you will lose to G/W Hexproof, Affinity, and

Just recognize what your deck’s weaknesses are and move on. It’s not like
you can sideboard a lot of stuff to compensate. Most of your lands only
cast creatures and you get completely screwed if you name anything other
than Human on your Cavern of Souls or Unclaimed Territory.

4) Keep more one-land hands

Any one-land hand containing Aether Vial is an auto-keep. Any one-land hand
with two or more one-mana spells is often a keep. Virtually any one-land
hand with a Noble Hierarch is a snapper. I’ve even kept a few no-land
six-card hands with Aether Vial on the draw.

5) Humans is a good deck, but it’s not a great deck

And it won’t be the best deck in Modern for very long. It keeps winning
tournaments or doing well as the Modern choice in Team Constructed
tournaments. But the day is coming where it just won’t be very good
anymore. Much like Lantern Control, there are a lot of decks and specific
cards that people can play that ruin your day. And that day is coming fast.

6) Unban Stoneforge Mystic and/or Umezawa’s Jitte

The ban list is too big. Modern is already a hellscape from which there’s
no reprieve. Just let me play Caw Blade and let’s call it a day. Send