Carrie On – Winning Ingredients

I wrote last week about how card availability need not be the reason you can not win a tournament. While I was writing that piece, I touched several times on a topic I wanted to examine more. In the end, I cut those references in order to dedicate more space and time to it this week. As such, this week I want to talk about deck choice.

I love analyzing metagames. I haven’t written about one in a while, but when a meta is busy and balanced I like to pick it apart, examine trends, what is beating what, and predict what everyone will be playing next week. This sort of analysis is really up my alley. It’s a very scientific process—you make a hypothesis based on current evidence and then get to see if you are right. If I am very involved in a Constructed format at the time, such that I really have a good grasp of the individual matchups and pay attention to what people are talking about, I can get a very good prediction on what a given meta at a given event will be.

The point of meta analysis is to then be able to select the deck that will be best positioned for that tournament. For example, if I expect 60% of the field to be playing decks that are weak to mono-red, then playing mono-red will give me a good advantage in 60% of the matches I play that day.

This, of course, isn’t perfect. A meta is always varied. Just because 60% of the field is weak to mono-red, that doesn’t protect you from being randomly paired against both the mono-white life gain decks that happened to show up. Even though they are terrible against the field, they can crush you just fine, leading to an 0-2 drop.

My point here is that while predicting the metagame is useful, it only generates a slight edge at the highest levels of play. At the Pro Tour, everyone has a high skill level, so having a better grasp on the meta than your opponent’s can be valuable, as that slight edge could well generate $40,000 of revenue. The further down competitive REL events you go, the more skill levels vary, and thus player skill is a bigger factor.

To make it clear, I’m going to use an example from my past experiences in archery. In my archery club it was commonly said that a good score is 80% skill and 20% mental attitude. When you start out doing archery you are very unskilled, but as you practice and refine your technique you get better and better scores. However, you reach a cap at which point to progress you need to improve your mental focus and attitude in order to obtain better results. Before you have developed good technique, there is little point in working on mental zones etc. because that is only the extra 20% you can acquire, much better to focus on the 80% part and then, when you are good, get the next bit. Besides, a good mental zone is worthless if you can’t hold the bow the right way up.

This got me thing about what goes into a good tournament result in Magic, and I sketched out this:

Screen Shot 2013-11-12 at 4.44.42 PM

Unlike archery, there is a much bigger component of luck involved (barring the odd gust of wind). If you’ve been playing any length of time then you can accept that sometimes you run good and get the cards you need at the right time. Yes, good deck design and individual card choice can help mitigate that, but at the end of the day if there are 10 lands on the top of your library then nothing is going to save you from defeat.

As mentioned above, metagaming can be important, but I suspect the degree of difference metagaming makes varies from person to person and even from event to event. It’s a factor that can be helpful and can make the difference but it’s really not the biggest factor.

Instead the biggest, and probably most ignored, factor in influencing the outcome of your tournament is player skill.

The point I was trying to get across last week is that if your deck is competitive then it doesn’t matter if it isn’t perfect or the cheapest deck in the room—if you know how to play it well then you can pilot it to success. It’s important to note the word competitive in that sentence. You may love your mill deck but it will take a lot of skill to win a PTQ with that.

This reminds me of my first PTQ win, as I took UW Tempered Steel to a local PTQ on no basis other than that it was cheap, legal, vaguely competitive, and I knew how to play it. I barely knew the format (Extended), and I certainly didn’t know what [card]Vendilion Clique[/card] did when it was played against me, but I knew what my deck was trying to do and it got there.

One of the ways you can improve your base level of skill and therefore chances of success at an event is intelligent deck choice.

Know your Deck

I already talked about this, but here is where you should start. You can hand me a [card]Doomsday[/card] Legacy deck and I will just stare blankly at cards as I try to understand what the deck is trying to accomplish. I might be good, but I can’t just pick up and run with any old deck, I need time to absorb what the deck is trying to achieve and how it will do that. And don’t assume this is a combo-only matter: even aggro decks have specific aims. What are a deck’s key cards, what does an ideal curve look like, what are acceptable opening hands?

You can acquire this knowledge in many ways, but most importantly, just practice with the deck. It doesn’t even matter if you don’t have an opponent. I will frequently sit and goldfish a deck, just drawing opening hands and playing out the first couple of turns to see which hands develop and which fail. What sort of draws can I expect to get? Yeah, I know what’s in the deck, but it’s more like developing an intuitive feel for how the thing runs. It’s like recognizing someone’s voice in a crowded room because you are familiar with it.

Practicing with others, however, is extra valuable as it helps with my second point, which is:

Understand Matchups/Key Cards

This is a skill I am bad at maintaining but will pick up over a Constructed season if I am playing regularly. When you play a deck regularly against the other decks in the metagame then you will start to pick up on what are the key cards for a given match.

For example, at the moment I am playing a lot of UW Control in Standard. When facing Mono-Black I know there are three cards key to the matchup that I need to ensure I have solutions to, and everything else will just fall into place. These are [card]Whip of Erebos[/card], [card erebos, god of the dead]Erebos[/card] himself, and [card]Underworld Connections[/card]. Mono-Black is itself a control deck, but playing the blue one with counterspells and [card]Sphinx’s Revelation[/card] I have more control and card draw than my opponent. If, however, I let one of the aforementioned cards resolve and stay in play, then that gives them a significant amount of card draw of their own, at which point a constant stream of [card]Desecration Demon[/card]s and [card gray merchant of asphodel]Gray Merchants[/card] might just do me in. However, without those cards, I can just trade 1-for-1 with threats like [card]Nightveil Specter[/card] and [card]Desecration Demon[/card] and then simply draw more cards to secure victory.

This information will also help dictate sideboarding decisions. I sideboard based on gut instinct, and I achieve this by having a handle on what is important in a match. Some people write copious notes on what to take out and what to put in for every matchup, and I try to include guides whenever I write about a deck, but really I just wing it. When you understand what is important and what threats there must be answers for, then it makes boarding far easier. Going back to the example of Mono-Black, [card]Underworld Connections[/card] and [card]Whip of Erebos[/card] are both enchantments so yes, you definitely find room for [card]Wear // Tear[/card] and [card]Negate[/card]. One easy cut is [card]Azorius Charm[/card], because you really don’t want put Gray Merchant back on top of their library for them, and instead of cycling the Charm, you could instead already have in hand the card you were trying to dig for.

One thing you can do to really understand what is important versus a particular deck or just for a given deck is to play with that deck instead. For example, I never could see what was so great about Delver. Then, one day, I took it to a tournament, and it was like a little light switched on. While I couldn’t play it masterfully, I could see the beauty in the design, it truly did work like a well-oiled machine. In playing it, I also discovered a weakness it had, which lead to the design of [card]Dungrove Elder[/card] Green.

Archetypes/Personal Preferences

There are multiple archetypes of deck in Magic and each player will display some preference for some of those over others. Really experienced/good players can confidently handle any deck type which allows them to select a deck that they think is ideal for a particular meta. However, having the correct deck is no substitute for playing something you are naturally good at and enjoy. This is related to the first point, that knowing a deck is more important that its relative position in the meta. This point will help guide you toward that deck choice in the first place, leaving you with a deck you enjoy, which will correlate with a better performance.

If you don’t think this is important, then take a look again at many Pro-level players. Many of them still show deck preference, even at the Pro Tour. Craig Wescoe will ideally be playing a white weenie deck, Wafo-Tapa will be on Esper Control as will Shahar Shenhar. These guys can, and have, successfully piloted other decks, but they like these deck styles most and will play it given the chance.

I think choosing a deck you know, understand, and enjoy is far more important than choosing the “right” deck against the metagame. I should know—I have tried both, and won far more events with the enjoyable deck than the deck deemed to be the perfect choice. That’s my insight for the week, I hope you have found it useful and I will see you next week.

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