Tournament success depends on many factors, but picking the right deck and having the right attitude are pretty high up on the list. Today I’d like to share the process I use for picking decks, tested by trial and error, and some reflections on how my attitude has changed (a little more on the error side here).
First is figuring out how to pick the right deck. Magic players spend a lot of their time reading articles, watching MTGO replays, talking to their friends about decks, and brewing in general, though it seems little is said about the actual deck-picking process. It feels like every single weekend there is another tournament so I’m often asked what I would play if I were to go (and I’ll have to make that decision myself for SCG LA soon). I usually give the same answer: “play whatever deck you know best”, because not only do I believe it’s true, I always have and I probably always will.
If I played Counterbalance in the last 10 tournaments and for the 11th tournament Goblins is a better choice I should still probably play Counterbalance, because over the course of the tournament the edges I gain playing a deck that’s better against the expected field aren’t as large as the edges I’m giving up playing a deck I’ve never played before. If you happen to just break the format and have a deck that is that is so good it basically breaks the rules of Magic and does something broken and consistent, then yeah, just play that, but it’s rare and I don’t think I’ve seen it yet. You hear this advice from many people, and that is because it is just the truth. Just think about it; even the best players don’t want to switch at the last minute, regardless of what they hear the night before at the Pro Tour.
Have a Nut Draw
Doing something awesome is underrated. By that, I mean if you have a choice between two decks, assuming all things are equal, picking the deck that does something more powerful is usually the right choice. I’ve played Vintage for a long time and it’s more true there than anywhere. When I started out I used to play UW fish in every Vintage event to very mediocre success and I did this because I liked the deck and I assumed it would be too hard to get the expensive cards to play a real deck. Eventually as I made friends and was able to borrow cards I quickly realized how wrong I was. It may sound stupid but you drastically increase your odds of winning when you put Tinker and Yawgmoth’s Will into your deck. Free wins are not to be underrated.
I always knew this but I was never able to really understand it until Mike Jacob put it in one of his articles, basically saying you should always try to play a deck with a nut draw. Some decks have a very specific nut draw, like Faeries, which aims to have t1 Thoughtseize t2 Bitterblossom t3 Spellstutter Sprite t4 Mistbind Clique/Cryptic Command, while other decks just aim to consistently do something very powerful if undisrupted, such as a turn 4 Primeval Titan. Normal aggressive decks don’t usually have a nut draw outside something simple like t1 Goblin Guide or Steppe Lynx but they just look to end the game as soon as possible because most other decks will have a stronger late game than them. Having an unbeatable (or nearly unbeatable) draw, like that Faeries hand, just means sometimes you will draw that hand and just win the game. Some decks, no matter how well you draw, just don’t have that capability, and it is definitely a downside to playing them.
Again, there are exceptions to this and a solid example is Kuldotha Red. This deck is built with its nut draw in mind and every card in the deck is in there for just that reason. In fact, it sacrifices too much in search of having an unbeatable opening hand. I read one of those stupid data mining articles and it basically showed all the decks from PT Paris and how they performed against each other on average and it said Kuldotha Red overall had a 40% win % against all decks. If you take away anything from this article it should be to never play Kuldotha Red under any circumstances (the same goes for any deck with Tempered Steel). I beg you just play anything else.
Aggro is Awesome in New Formats
In an undefined metagame it’s usually best to play something aggressive. In this new day and age of a 5k every weekend and Magic Online this doesn’t happen all that often, but it is the case for some Pro Tours. It’s just significantly harder to build a control deck when you don’t know what threats you need to be fighting, as opposed to a known format where you know if your 5-color control deck should play Day of Judgement or Consume the Meek or even something as simple as Go for the Throat or Doom Blade. On top of that, in an unknown metagame it’s pretty safe to assume that the newer strategies you play against will not be optimally constructed and playing a straightforward aggressive deck can do a lot of good things, like punish their bad draws and put the pressure on them to show an answer or die.
To elaborate, this year at States I played mono red and I think it was a good choice, but before the event I was asked multiple times why I would play a deck like mono red if I thought I had a skill edge against the field. I said then what I’m saying now; there is an unquantifiable advantage in playing an aggressive deck. You are the one applying the pressure and putting the onus on them to react. Simply put if they keep a bad hand or make a mistake (which isn’t surprising at a tournament like States) it makes it much easier for you to win. I would hope that it’s also common knowledge by now that with a mono red or zoo type deck you can play it suboptimally and win but when one of these fast aggressive decks is played poorly versus played well it’s night and day as to the power level of the deck.
Be Organized in Acquiring Cards
I’ll speak briefly on this next subject as it can be wildly different for all people and playgroups but card availability is an issue for some. Basically if you want to maximize your chances of winning the tournament don’t let it be an issue. People aren’t going to look down on you for asking to borrow cards and if you want to win and think a deck with Jace, the Mind Sculptor is best, then ask everyone you know if they will let you borrow them. ALWAYS return them as soon as you are finished with them and always be sure to thank them, and at the same time be willing to lend out any cards you yourself own to anyone who you trust that needs cards. There is nothing worse than ‘that guy’ who needs to borrow an entire deck for every tournament while also never lending out his own cards. Worst come to worst, sometimes you should just buy the cards you need. Listen to my friend Kyle Boggemes and just buy Jaces if you think you need them to win. Hell, just buy 8 so you have 4 extra just in case.
Play a Deck You Will Have Fun Playing
Next, I believe there is quite a bit of value in just playing a deck you enjoy. If you HATE HATE HATE playing Valakut, no matter how good it is, you shouldn’t play it because during the (nowadays very long) tournament you are going to be miserable. This all comes down to some very simple concepts, like “confidence” and “playing well” and “not wanting to drop and do literally anything else” and believe me, it all ties together. If you play a deck you like and want to win you will be that much more emotionally invested in all your matches and will just generally try harder and look for more obscure ways to win, as opposed to some people who when they don’t want to win or don’t think they have anything to prove are more apt to giving up.
How I Went from 0wen-2 to X and 0wen
I have only recently seen myself vow to take tournaments more seriously and try to improve my game and that is a product of many things. First was being unsatisfied with my own results and testing process (as many players are). Next was playing with players who are even more dedicated to this game than I was/am. Lastly, and probably most importantly of all I have a hunger and will to win more than I have ever had before. I’ve seen this happen countless times to countless players and I know this because I lived it myself. When reality hit and I started doing worse at tournaments as time went on, I just chalked it up to variance and assumed I was running bad, and honestly I probably was. Still, that doesn’t mean I wasn’t also falling into terrible habits that not only made me a worse player but they also just made me lazy and complacent. When I started I practiced so much and took the game very seriously and my results reflected that, but the more I would win the better I thought I was and the less I felt I needed to prepare. It shouldn’t surprise any of you to read that the best players I know are also the most dedicated and hardest working.
I suppose im choosing now to write about this topic because I’ve been reflecting on myself a lot recently and I’ve seen many young players and friends making the same mistakes that I made. This game can be cruel when you don’t respect the process it takes to improve and if you don’t continually work to get better you will get punished. I guess another thing that prompted this kind of thinking was being asked by multiple people “how do I get better?” and again the only answers I can give them are to practice and to play with better players. Make no mistake, you need to be doing both of these things. During the stretch of events I played with all poor results I was definitely practicing and playing plenty of MTGO but there are many players who play more MTGO than anyone alive (all brazilians) who practice constantly but never get better; in fact they are probably getting worse. To improve you need to respect others’ input, since even if you believe they are a worse player than you, you can learn from them, even if it’s just taking the good and leaving the bad and incorporating the good parts of their game into your own.
I believe it is human nature to always assume that you are right about something simply because you yourself came to that conclusion; I mean how often do you think something up on your own and just assume it’s wrong? You actively have to watch what you say and how you think to make sure you aren’t dismissing things other people say simply because they aren’t what you think or because it’s not something you already thought of. Often even if they are wrong it can be helpful to hear others’ advice on something such as sealed deck just to know how other people might value certain cards or think about the format.
I think one of the things that has helped me the most is my willingness to ask for help from people I respect and utilizing my resources as best I can. In the Scars and Zendikar sealed formats specifically I remember playing them on MTGO religiously and constantly screenshotting my sealed pools and asking everyone and anyone how they would build it or if they agreed with the way I had built it. There is a medium here that you must maintain; if you believe you are right you have to fight and argue your case. Being able to explain why something is correct is as important as being correct in the first place. It’s even more important when you are trying to get better and get your friends to improve.
Well, this certainly turned into more of a rant about growing as a player than it was about deck selection but I think there is a wealth of information here to help aspiring players and it’s all pretty relevant for tournament success in general.
Although there are no decklists in here I think if I had read something like this and took it to heart when I was starting it would’ve made me a much stronger player much sooner.
I’m not sure that this type of article is up everyone’s alley but as always I welcome and encourage you to post in the forums and let me know what you liked and didn’t like about it so I can fix these things in the future.
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