Why You Win

In this article, Carsten introduces the concept of Why You Win and tells you why understanding it will help you win more matches of tournament Magic.

Today I feel like talking about a very fundamental idea that has a multitude of applications both during deckbuilding and actual game play. I call it simply Why You Win (WYW). This might seem like a very easy question to answer—I had turn 1 Delver, duh!—but understanding this concept will allow you to win more with (and against) decks you aren’t too familiar with, help you to maximize your plays in difficult-to-interpret situations, and allow you to switch decks more easily and optimize them more efficiently. In short, it’s something you should be really interested in knowing.

Now, let me clarify things a little. I’m not talking about the factors that allowed you to win any single game. This isn’t about timing your Vendilion Clique correctly, countering the right spells, bluffing the Giant Growth, or when to main phase your spells. It’s about understanding which attributes make your deck work, which kinds of games you generally win—and therefore want to get into—and how you generally lose. Knowing these things about the deck you’re playing and knowing them for each kind of matchup will help you massively in making correct decisions in game as well as during deck construction.

Ready? Alright, let’s get going.

The Heart of Why You Win

At its heart, Why You Win is a very basic concept—a different way of looking at what matters, as Jon Finkel so eloquently puts it. Similar to who’s the beatdown, WYW is about decisions in the light of your overarching game plan. While this grand classic taught us that misassignment of role = game loss, the idea behind WYW is that:

Misunderstanding your strength = game loss.

Now, what is this supposed to mean? Well, whenever you make a decision in a game of Magic, you’re choosing a particular path for the game at hand to move along, and if that path won’t play to your deck’s strengths, you’re likely costing yourself the game in the long run. Let’s take a look at a situation most of you are likely familiar with in some capacity.

You’re playing a red-based aggressive deck (like classic Zoo) and have a Wild Nacatl (3/3) and a Kird Ape (2/3) on board with an empty hand against a Maverick opponent who is at six life and has just dropped a Knight of the Reliquary (5/5) onto the board. Your attacks are atrocious; you can trade in your Wild Nacatl to get through for two points of damage or can just sit around and hope to draw enough creatures to overwhelm their board. What should you do?

If you have experience with the matchup, the answer should come to you easily: swing in with both creatures and hope to topdeck a Fireblast, Price of Progress, or two Bolts to end the game. Why is that the right answer though? After all, you end up setting yourself behind on a number of metrics just to deal two points of damage to your opponent.

The secret here is knowing how your deck operates. A fast Zoo deck like the one we’re holding in our hands will lose any late-game creature standoff to a dedicated on-board deck like Maverick. The way Zoo wins is by pushing through enough damage with its creatures to end the game with burn before it succumbs to superior creatures. That’s why Zoo wins its games, so that’s what you should be playing for!

For a less obvious example, let’s take a look at my beloved PIF Tendrils (that’s what I’ll be calling the deck from now on, as that’s what it is by now: Past in Flames Tendrils).

Have you ever wondered why a deck with only six pieces of disruption successfully chooses to go for the long game against a temp -deck with nearly twice that number of interactive instants? Why a deck with both countermagic and discard like Esper Deathblade is a very good matchup for a deck that relies on resolving a combination of spells that won’t work if any one of them is stopped?

Well, let’s take a look at how this deck wins games. The easy obvious answer is "by casting a ton of rituals and a tutor." That answer doesn’t look at things profoundly enough though. The real reason this deck wins games is card quality advantage.

Because of all the library manipulation and cantrips the deck runs and how many cards it just doesn’t care about, your hand will become better than that of your opponent throughout the course of the game almost inevitably. What you’re really aiming to establish is a position in which the cards you have in your hand match up against your opponent’s in such a way that your hand just trumps everything they can still do—and that’s when you kill them.

Let’s take a look at the opposite situation; how you lose when you don’t understand why you win. Take a look at Death and Taxes:

The first impression when looking at this deck is that we’re dealing with White Weenie. Yet if you play this deck with the mindset of a small creature beatdown deck—focused on curving out and maximizing damage—you’ll do atrociously in most of your matches. Damage output just isn’t why this deck wins.

Instead, you should look at Death and Taxes like a prison deck. The deck is full of mana denial elements and annoying little hate bears that shut down some relevant part of the opponent’s gameplan, constricting their options until none are left and they die to the needle stings of your small guys. In short, why you win with Death and Taxes is that you’ve run your opponent out of viable actions, and as such you should always choose the line that constricts the opponent the most.

Understanding why you win isn’t always as straightforward as saying, "Ok, this is my deck’s plan." In a lot of cases, it can vary depending on what exactly it is you’re playing against. For example, look at something like Goblins.

In matchups against grindy midrange decks, why you win is usually Goblin Ringleader card advantage. Because you get to play uncounterable 2/2 haste Fact or Fictions a lot of the time, any opponent trying to play a fair game with you will regularly find themselves down three, five, or even more cards compared to you over the course of a match. The ability to outdraw even Legacy’s control decks is what gives the deck its strength in a multitude of matchups. As such, what you’re usually interested in is slowly stabilizing the board, building up mana, and overwhelming the opponent when the time is right.

In some matchups, though, this plan simply isn’t good enough. Say you’re playing against the PIF Tendrils deck above. By the time you get to four mana to cast Goblin Ringleader, you should just die to a Tendrils kill once they untap. Clearly, drawing extra cards isn’t why you win these games.

If you beat a Storm deck, you will do so because you’ve managed to kill them before they’ve managed to do the same to you—the game is all about racing. Why you win is raw damage output. So what you should do in this matchup is focus on the aggro-combo side of Goblins—hope you draw a Goblin Lackey and some way to get a Goblin Piledriver down to make sure they’re dead on turn 4. Slowing them down with Wastelands and Ports in the meantime is alright, but playing for anything but the straight-out fastest kill will backfire almost every time. By daring them to have it, you at least win if they don’t get there. Your mindset, your mulliganing, and the cards you cast / put into play should all be focused on finding a fast enough win.

Even decks that don’t have to deviate from their main plan have to adapt depending on why they win. Let’s say you’re playing Miracles:

Your game plan is always the same: use your resources to stay alive and make land drops, stopping whatever your opponent wants to do to advance their game plan. Yet why you win actually differs massively depending on the opposition you’re facing, and only if you understand what your plan is can you use your library manipulation and interactive spells correctly.

Against a classic midrange deck—think Maverick—why you win is that you can efficiently answer their whole board for a single white mana (Terminus says hi) and follow it up with a huge bomb—either a flock of Angel tokens or a Jace—to put the game away soon after. As such, what you’re looking for in this matchup are ways to set up and protect your Terminuses and Entreats so you can blow the opponent out at the most fortunate of times. Your enemies are all the cards that could stop you from casting these cards.

Pair Miracles against a combo deck and why you win suddenly changes massively. Instead of clearing the board and resolving a bomb, your wins come from totally disabling the opponent’s ability to act meaningfully. Your main focus becomes setting up a hard Counterbalance-Top lock and / or a highly disruptive hand before winning with whatever easy-to-resolve threat can finish the game now that the opponent is effectively dead already.

Applying Why You Win

I mentioned in the beginning that understanding why you win will help you in almost every single part of playing tournament Magic, from deckbuilding to making in-game decisions. To see how that works, let’s take a look at the different areas that make up the main body of tournament Magic.


Understanding why you win allows you to avoid a number of pitfalls here. By focusing on why you win, you get to avoid playing unnecessary cards and focus on maximizing your deck’s ability to capitalize in areas where it is strong.

One example of this is Adam Prosak sixteen-cantrip build of ANT. He correctly identified that the deck wins by shaping its hand into something much superior to what the opponent has and went all the way by fully maximizing the deck’s sculpting potential. While I’ve had some consistency issues with the deck in matchups where your hand usually already starts out being significantly better than your opponent’s (because they can’t interact with a fast combo kill), there is no deck you’d hate to face more if you plan to grind against them. Every turn that passes is likely to see another cantrip cast, and the quality of Adam’s hand will soon so far outclass yours that it isn’t even funny.

Similarly, understanding that RUG Delver wins by trapping the opponent in the early game explains why by now (almost?) everybody has realized that cutting Stifle from the deck just isn’t a good idea. If you cannot stop your opponent from making their land drops, a lot of your cards will become dead very rapidly, and you’ll end up unable to actually protect your clock long enough to win with it. RUG Delver wins because it hamstrings the opponent, not because it has such great creatures. This knowledge should be reflected in the decklist you’re using.


Similarly, during sideboard construction and actual sideboarding, be aware of Why You Win. I’ve seen people bring in Dark Confidant in exchange for cantrips in ANT—against Elves no less—or jam Leyline of Sanctity in Sneak and Show against a deck that has only a couple of Cabal Therapys for discard. For every game these cards are going to win for you, there will be three or more you lose because those cards weren’t the spells that actually advance your game plan you cut for them.

These decks win because they consistently find the pieces they need to go off, so every single card you cut from your maindeck is making your deck straight-up worse (assuming you built your maindeck correctly). Doing so is fine if there are things you simply can’t beat (Gaddock Teeg, Counterbalance, etc.) because your way to win suddenly includes "kill their hate." As soon as you’re cutting cards for things that might be situationally useful, you’re doing it wrong.

In sideboarding and in deckbuilding, you should try to figure out why you win against the matchup you’re facing. Once you’ve figured that out, cut the cards that don’t support your plan for winning and replace them with ones that do in this particular matchup. Yes, sometimes this is easier said than done, but remember that if you aren’t sure you should bring in something, don’t unless you see a clear way how it supports how you’re planning to win.


Assuming you know what you’re playing against, you should also be aware of why you win against your opponent. Sometimes this is quite straightforward—on the draw against Belcher, you win because you can cast Force of Will, so you mulligan for that. With Miracles, you usually win because Sensei’s Divining Top makes your deck insane, so almost any hand with mana and a Top is likely a keeper unless the specific matchup tells you otherwise (e.g. Belcher).

Sometimes you need a specific game plan to come together to win. Say you’re playing Esper Deathblade and have a hand of lands, two discard spells, a Deathrite Shaman, and a Jace the Mind Sculptor. This hand is generally excellent—just rip the opponent’s hand to shreds and use turn 3 Jace to win the game—but if you’re playing against a deck like Merfolk, Esper Deathblade doesn’t win because of drawing disruption into Jace. It wins by resolving a Stoneforge Mystic for Batterskull or casting massive amounts of Swords to Plowshares and Snapcaster Mages. The hand we have here is infinitely far away from even approximating this gameplan and should be mulliganed accordingly.

In-Game Decisions

Whatever deck you’re playing, your decisions should always be influenced by why you win. Every deck has at least one metric in which it plans to get ahead on to win, and that’s the metric you need to be advancing. Belcher wins due to speed, so you really don’t have a choice when wondering if you should go all-in. Sneak and Show wins because of some giant fatty hitting the board ASAP, so that’s what all your efforts should be going towards.

A lot of decks—mainly those that we don’t call linear—have a number of different areas where they can get ahead. Knowing why you win in each matchup is particularly important for those decks since it will inform your whole sequencing.

Say you’re playing RUG Delver and your opening hand has both Stifle and Delver of Secrets. Should you drop the Delver here or keep up the mana to possibly stop a fetchland? The answer depends on why you’re winning the matchup at hand. If I’m playing against Zoo, pure Delver beatdown is very unlikely to actually win me the game. An active Zoo opponent will either be able to kill the bug or can straight up race it most of the time. On the other hand, Zoo has very few lands and a lot of fetches. Our best way to beat them is usually to mana screw them for long enough to take the game with a suddenly protected Delver of Secrets.

When playing against High Tide, on the other hand, winning doesn’t depend on cutting them off from mana completely. Their deck is full of basic lands and fetches, and they have a ton of cantrips to find more. As a result, when playing against High Tide, we win because our clock puts too much pressure on them to fight through our soft counters, so turn 1 Delver into hope to catch a later fetch with Stifle instantly becomes the right play.

Have We Won Yet?

To conclude, why you win is about choosing the right field of battle for your deck, playing to your strengths and towards your opponent’s weaknesses. Some decks have the ability to dominate the board or lock the opponent out with the correct combination of disruptive permanents. Some decks win because they end up so far ahead on cards that the opponent just gets buried. Others use their disruption to make sure nothing relevant ever happens on the other side of the board, leaving them free to win with whatever they’ve managed to sneak in in the meantime, and yet others just make sure their cards are better than those their opponent’s hold to the point of overpowering them.

Understanding why your deck wins is literally the most fundamental point in playing and building your deck optimally. Always know what your plan is, both in general and in the matchup at hand, and make your decisions in a way that furthers this goal.

And with this little nugget, I’m leaving you for today. I hope you enjoyed these very fundamental observations—let me know what you think in the comments.

Until next time, win your way!

Carsten Kotter