Many articles tell you how to get better. They talk about steps to take in order to tighten up your Limited or Constructed game, strategies for blocking, attacking, countering spells, and even strategies for bluffing out your opponent. However, articles rarely tell you what to do as you get better. There are many ways to maximize the skills you gain from articles and testing.
Generally, when people start playing competitively, they play more mid-range or aggressive decks. These decks often require fewer decisions and they punish you less for making mistakes. They are certainly not easy and they do reward skill, as proven by players like Channel Fireball’s own Tomoharo Saitou: he is a master of Red decks and obtains much better results than when random players play it. Magic is a game of skill and no matter what deck you choose, if you play tightly, your results will be solid.
Nonetheless, there are certainly ways to try and get additional value out of your abilities. One great way is to find decks that encourage a large number of decisions: Combo Decks and Control Decks. Playing decks with more decisions for the sake of having more decisions isn’t valuable. However, decks that have more decisions have many benefits.
Combo decks are very powerful. When they are played correctly, they can race aggro decks while fighting through disruption from control decks. If a meta isn’t ready for a combo deck, it can often dominate a tournament, because the way to beat combo decks tends to be focused disruption. However, if you do not play a combo deck correctly, it will constantly fail. When you play combo, each piece of the combination is highly contingent on every other piece, and cards that are irrelevant in one situation are critical to another. Figuring out what to do given every possible combination of cards can be overwhelming. Even players who really understand their combo decks can be tripped up: When Steve Sadin won GP Columbus with Flash, he lost a game on the way to the trophy because he didn’t recognize how to make his combo work. Thus, while keeping track of every piece is important, it is also important to know the ins and outs of your combo deck. As you improve, you should be testing more, not less.
Control decks are very powerful in a different way. As the game goes longer, control decks press an advantage. In addition, control decks force your opponents to play well. They represent lots of cards to play around and can make your opponent’s life miserable. Even if your opponent chose a simple aggro deck because they do not feel confident with their abilities, they will be forced to make continual judgments about what cards you might have and how they could be played in particular situations. The aggro player must think about how to handle Wrath effects, make reads on counterspells, and know when to alpha strike; if not, they will lose a lot of games they could have won. Control decks often make good choices at tournaments where you expect lots of inexperienced players: because they tend to be less strong players, they are more likely to find difficulties in handling your threats. When aggro plays control, even one mistake by the aggro player can be highly consequential. Of course, your opponent is not the only one who has to play well when a control deck is involved: as the game goes on, control decks require more and more decisions, including how much mana to leave up, which cards to counter, and how to maximize the value of every single spell. Because control decks are built on disrupting the opponent, you should know the ins and outs of every deck before you play one. If you don’t understand what your opponent is trying to do, you won’t be able to disrupt them affectively.
PTQs are a great venue for using interactive decks to force your opponent to make decisions. For example, Faeries dominated the PTQ scene (while it was legal). Faeries is the quintessential interactive deck. It has combat traps like Agony Warp; a variety of counterspells that are tough to play around, including Broken Ambitions, Spellstutter Sprite, and sometimes even Scion of Oona, multiple 4/4s that come out of nowhere–Mistbind Clique and Plumeveil–and one of the best interactive cards in old Standard: Cryptic Command. It was virtually impossible for most PTQ players to play around all of these different cards. Making life difficult to for the opponent is what made Faeries such a PTQ-winning machine back in the day (and Bitterblossom wasn’t a bad card either).
The perfect example of the difficulty of playing against Faeries is the Cryptic Command vs. Mistbind Clique dilemma. You, the non-Faerie player, have a Sprouting Thrinax out. Your Faeries opponent has four mana up. You draw for your turn, and are ready to play your four drop: Chameleon Colossus. The question is whether you play it first main or second main. If you play it first main and they have [card]Cryptic Command[/card], you get destroyed. They Cryptic countering the Colossus and will likely bounce the Thrinax, essentially stealing your third and fourth turns. If you attack before casting Colossus, they probably just take the three, but then still counter-bounce if you play Colossus second main. Additionally, if they have Mistbind Clique and you attack first, your Thrinax will get ambushed, and you will be mana-shorted and lose your chance to play Colossus. If you just attack and don’t play Colossus, they can bounce the Thrinax end of turn and draw a card, or just play a Mistbind and start bashing. While many situations against Faeries led to near-impossible decisions, this one does have a correct play. Because playing around Cryptic Command is impossible, you might as well play around Mistbind Clique by playing the Colossus first main. You may cost yourself three damage (if they have the Cryptic), but that is a small price to pay to avoid getting blown out by Mistbind Clique. Situations like this were why playing around Faeries’ cards was a nightmare, especially for inexperienced players. Even though the combination of Command + Mistbind led to unwinnable situations, most players would play around neither, allowing the Faeries player to get a huge edge even if they only had one of the two.
I spent much of the time Faeries was legal trying to fight it, but eventually I realized I should be playing it instead. After I got enough practice to where I felt comfortable with the deck, I started putting up much better results than I had previously, since the deck was just so much better than anything else in the format.
At the ChannelFireball 5k last weekend, I had to decide which deck to play. The options I was considering were Blue-Green Turboland, Blue-White Control, and Mono-Red Aggro. All three decks are powerful, and they all have their advantages.
Turboland is incredibly powerful. It has many of the most powerful cards in the format and lots of powerful synergies. Oracle of Mul Daya is incredibly powerful and this deck completely abuses it. Turboland is very hard to play, but does not really challenge your opponents heavily, as most games end in a race.
Blue-White Control is very interactive. It attacks aggressive decks that feast on Turboland. Unfortunately, its Turboland matchup isn’t great, but it can be built to disrupt it more with Meddling Mages in the board and Negates main.
Mono-Red Aggro is a great meta choice, but is not as difficult to play. Channelfireball’s own Zaiem Beg and Jeff Huang showed how powerful red can be with a Top 8 at the Channelfireball 5k for Jeff and a PTQ win for Zaiem.
In the end, I chose to play Red at the 5k because I thought it fit the meta the best. However, I now regret this decision because I do not think I took advantage of my experience or my opponent’s lack of experience. I should have played either Blue-White or Turboland.
As you get better, you should increase the difficulty of the decks you choose to play. If you do not, you are not rewarding yourself for your hard practice. You should always take advantage of all your brain power. As you get better, play harder decks.