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PV’s Playhouse – What Makes a Good Deck Good

Hello!

A while ago, I examined some good players in an attempt to define what made them good. Today, I’m going to elaborate on what makes a good deck good. I’m usually against any sort of rule, such as, “spends its mana better,” or nonsense like this—these rules always say a lot, without meaning anything, and Magic decks are too different, as are metagames, for us to be able to group them together this way. However, there are certain characteristics most good decks share, or that are generally desirable and you should watch out for when picking a deck.

This article is not focused on deckbuilding, but on identifying a good deck, though I suppose you could apply what I’m saying if you’re building your own deck as well. This reflects the fact that I think deckbuilding is a severely overrated skill. Now, don’t get me wrong—deckbuilding is awesome, and I certainly spend a portion of my time wondering about new decks and combinations. I have plenty of schoolbooks with decklists in the back as proof of that.

But, when it comes to winning events, being able to choose a deck and tweak it is way more important than being able to build one. In this age, information is very easy to come by—as soon as someone plays something, everyone knows about it. There are thousands of people working on the same archetypes—the “hive mind”—and, in all likelihood, if something were very good then someone would have already found out about it.

Let’s face it, when you build a new deck for an event, there is, say, a 5% chance that it’s better than all the existing decks—and that’s being extremely generous. In the other 95% of cases in which an existing deck is better, it’s much more important to be able to choose from the pool of existing decks and to have a version that makes you stand out. If you consistently build decks that are an “8”, then you would be considered a great deckbuilder, but if you consistently play them when there are “9’s” available, that won’t result in many wins.

“But, PV, if I never try then I’ll never come up with anything new—if everyone thought like you, no decks would ever be built.” Well, true. But I’m not saying you should not develop ideas. You should definitely build decks. You have to understand, though, that the number of times playing a deck you built is optimal is very small. Sure, you might play it better than you play other archetypes—after all you worked on it for a long time—but in all likelihood you should have abandoned the idea when it was clear that your deck was not better than, say, Jund, and that time could have been focused on mastering Jund instead.

• Good Decks Have Powerful Cards

There are two approaches you can take with a deck to make it good—power or resource denial (or whatever you want to call it). Power means your cards are more powerful than your opponents’ and that is why you win. Resource denial means that, while your cards might not be the most powerful, you can deny your opponent the chance to play his powerful cards by attacking a resource. Here, the most common resource to attack is time (by way of life total, usually—they can’t play their powerful cards because they are dead), but it also works if you attack the mana or the cards themselves. Decks that do not do either (such as white weenie; generally not powerful enough to compete nor fast enough to stop them from doing their thing), are usually not good.

Of the two approaches, power is the ideal way to go, since doing something powerful yourself is just way better than trying to stop your opponent. If the opponent stops your critical point, then it’s like all your effort was wasted. If you destroy four of your opponent’s lands but somehow can’t deal with the next four; If you discard their entire hand but one card, and that card is [card]Jace, the Mindsculptor[/card]; If you deal 19 damage to them but can’t deal the last one—it’s like you haven’t done anything.

You win when you reach a critical mass—you discard their last card, you destroy the last land they need, you deal the last point of damage, but you are, in essence, playing a combo deck, and if they can deal with your [card tendrils of agony]”Tendrils,”[/card] then it’s just like you spent the last 15 minutes playing spells that don’t actually do anything.

It’s important to note that power versus speed, for example, is not the same as control versus aggro. To elaborate on that, we can take the BR decks of current Standard as an example:

[deck]Main Deck:
4 Blood Crypt
4 Cavern of Souls
4 Dragonskull Summit
3 Rakdos Guildgate
9 Swamp
4 Diregraf Ghoul
4 Falkenrath Aristocrat
4 Geralf’s Messenger
4 Gravecrawler
4 Knight of Infamy
4 Thundermaw Hellkite
2 Vampire Nighthawk
1 Bonfire of the Damned
4 Pillar of Flame
3 Searing Spear
2 Victim of Night
Sideboard
3 Appetite for Brains
2 Bonfire of the Damned
2 Cremate
2 Tragic Slip
2 Underworld Connections
2 Vampire Nighthawk
2 Zealous Conscripts[/deck]

This is Kyohei Kawaguchi’s list from the t8 of GP Nagoya. I’m not saying this is the actual best BR list, but it’s enough for us to elaborate on.

No one would deny this is an aggro deck, but we only have to take a look at the cards to notice that this deck is very powerful. Look at [card]Thundermaw Hellkite[/card]—can you say it’s not a powerful card? [card]Falkenrath Aristocrat[/card]? [card]Geralf’s Messenger[/card], a card so powerful that it had to be printed at BBB?

Though those decks have speed as a factor, they do not need it to win. This is what makes this deck so good! It is a fast deck, but at the same time it’s a powerful deck. Many fast decks will just fold the late game, but this deck thrives in the late game. By having such powerful cards, it shifts gears—now, if they don’t deal with your [card]Thundermaw Hellkite[/card], it’s like they haven’t done anything the entire game! It’s very possible that someone deals with everything you play, and promptly loses to one of your cards.

In the end, you really want to be the person doing the powerful thing, because things will go wrong, games will go longer than you expect, and then powerful cards will shine. The more you rely on synergy over individual power, the more things have to go right for you, because if you draw a part of your deck and not the other then the part you drew is substantially weaker, whereas if all your cards are individually powerful then it’s not going to be as much of a problem. Let’s take, for example, one of the most successful decks in recent years—Caw Blade from PT Paris:

[deck]Main Deck:
4 Celestial Colonnade
4 Glacial Fortress
5 Island
1 Misty Rainforest
4 Plains
4 Seachrome Coast
4 Tectonic Edge
4 Squadron Hawk
4 Stoneforge Mystic
4 Day of Judgment
1 Deprive
3 Gideon Jura
4 Jace, the Mind Sculptor
3 Mana Leak
4 Preordain
4 Spell Pierce
1 Stoic Rebuttal
1 Sword of Feast and Famine
1 Sylvok Lifestaff
Sideboard
2 Baneslayer Angel
2 Divine Offering
2 Flashfreeze
1 Negate
4 Oust
3 Ratchet Bomb
1 Sword of Body and Mind[/deck]

Is there synergy in this deck? Of course there is. [card]Jace, the Mindsculptor[/card] and [card]Squadron Hawk[/card] are a synergy, Hawk and [card stoneforge mystic]Mystic[/card], Mystic and Jace, Jace and [card gideon jura]Gideon[/card], [card day of judgment]Wrath[/card] and planeswalkers—it’s very synergistic. But those cards are all very powerful. You don’t need to draw Stoneforge for Jace to be good, it’s just good, in or out of context. Part of the reason that this deck was so good was that it was synergistic and overwhelmingly powerful.

So, how do I make sure my deck is powerful? The basic metric I use is this—look at the cards in your deck, and imagine drawing them. How do you feel? Are they good cards? Would you like to draw them when both players are empty-handed? When your opponent plays them, how do you feel? Do you feel like you have to kill them or you lose, like [card]Stoneforge Mystic[/card], [card]Dark Confidant[/card], and [card jace, the mind sculptor]Jace[/card]? If you feel that way, then your deck is probably powerful enough.

At the same PT Paris, for example, there was a [card]Tempered Steel[/card] deck with hits such as [card]Vector Asp[/card], and a Kuldotha Red deck that played a bunch of unplayable cards because they combo’d with more unplayable cards. I didn’t think those decks were good, because their cards were just horrible and they never wanted to draw them—if I don’t ever really like drawing a card, why did I put it in my deck?

• Good Decks Are Consistent

One thing that makes me hate a deck is inconsistency. Some decks are powerful, but have a lot of weak cards to support their super powerful ones, an approach I prefer to avoid, though I’ve played decks like this many times before.

Take, for example, Affinity and Jund. Affinity has cards that are exceedingly more powerful than anything Jund has to offer. [card]Cranial Plating[/card], for example, is better in Affinity than most cards are in most decks in the format. It also has cards that are deeply inferior to anything in Jund—[card]Memnite[/card], [card]Springleaf Drum[/card], etc. If you average the power level of the deck, it’s possible that Affinity comes up ahead, but, for me, average means very little—what matters is the Harmonic Mean.

If you’re unfamiliar with Harmonic Mean, it is a type of mean that will pull your result towards the low number. According to Wikipedia: “As it tends strongly toward the least elements of the list, it may (compared to the arithmetic mean) mitigate the influence of large outliers and increase the influence of small values.”

In Harmonic, it’s better to have balanced values than tops and bottoms. As an example, the arithmetic mean of 10 and 4 is 7, but the Harmonic mean of 10 and 4 is 5.7; whereas if you take 7 and 7, the arithmetic mean is 7 and the Harmonic is also 7.

I feel like that reflects Magic decks well, because the small values matter more than the largest values—I’d rather have two solid cards than a great card and a terrible card most of the time, because if I only draw one of them, or if they deal with it, what I have left is still good. In sum, I want powerful cards, but I want all of them to be powerful, rather than having some weak ones and some super powerful ones, because that means I can do what I want to do more consistently.

Another example of a powerful, but inconsistent deck is the one we played in Hawaii:

[deck]Main Deck:
4 Copperline Gorge
5 Forest
4 Inkmoth Nexus
2 Kessig Wolf Run
6 Mountain
4 Rootbound Crag
1 Acidic Slime
1 Birds of Paradise
4 Huntmaster of the Fells
2 Inferno Titan
4 Primeval Titan
3 Solemn Simulacrum
1 Thrun, the Last Troll
4 Galvanic Blast
2 Green Sun’s Zenith
4 Rampant Growth
4 Slagstorm
4 Sphere of the Suns
1 Whipflare
Sideboard
2 Ancient Grudge
1 Autumn’s Veil
2 Beast Within
1 Combust
2 Garruk, Primal Hunter
2 Karn Liberated
2 Naturalize
2 Thrun, the Last Troll
1 Whipflare[/deck]

This deck is certainly powerful. You can play turn three [card huntmaster of the fells]Huntmaster[/card], or turn four [card primeval titans]Primeval[/card] or [card]Infernal Titan[/card]s, and follow it up with 10 infect damage, or even a turn four Karn.

But it’s also very inconsistent—you need to draw lands, acceleration and bombs. If you don’t, or if they deal with either acceleration or bombs, then your deck falls apart. If you get to the late game and you haven’t won, there are, realistically, 14 cards you want to draw and 46 cards that you don’t want to draw—of those 12, only 8 are super powerful. If you do draw one of those 8, you will certainly beat their topdeck—but what if you don’t? Then you’re left drawing [card]Slagstorm[/card]s, [card]Rampant Growth[/card]s, and [card]Sphere of the Suns[/card].

So, how do I make my deck more consistent? There are a few ways to do that. The first and most effective is to simply not play bad cards. I mean, look at [card]Vector Asp[/card], you can’t be serious, it’s a 1/1 with no abilities.

The second is card selection, such as [card]Ponder[/card], [card]Preordain[/card], [card]Sensei’s Divining Top[/card], [card]Brainstorm[/card], [card]Grisly Salvage[/card], and even [card]Faithless Looting[/card]. Card selection helps in two ways: first, you can run less lands, because you know that you have those spells to dig for lands if you need them, so you naturally have a better late game. Second, you can filter and get exactly the card you need at that moment—you are not stuck drawing useless things.

The third way is to have lands with abilities. Decks like Jund and GW avoid flooding out by playing [card]Raging Ravine[/card] and [card]Gavony Township[/card], which gives them a huge advantage over similar decks that don’t have those cards.

The fourth is versatile cards—something like [card]Snapcaster Mage[/card] has a lot of uses in many situations, in the early and in the late game, and it’s rare that it’ll be useless. Cards like [card]Lingering Souls[/card] are also versatile in that they can be played early on as a normal spell, but are a much more powerful draw in the late game. Delver was an extremely consistent deck, because it had few lands, [card]Ponder[/card], [card snapcaster mage]Snapcaster[/card], and [card]Moorland Haunt[/card], covering pretty much every base.

Keep in mind, though, that being inconsistent does not mean a deck is bad. I don’t think Affinity is a bad deck. I certainly don’t think the GR Ramp deck we played was a bad deck. I played it, after all. But it isn’t ideal. You will play whatever wins, but decks like this win in spite of having this huge power gap between its cards, and not because of it. Being inconsistent will not make a deck unplayable, it will merely make it worse—there are other factors that might make it good enough to play, or even the best deck, but it’s certainly a strike against it.

• Good Decks Do Not Fold to One Thing

To me, a good deck is not extremely vulnerable to a single card or a single strategy. If your deck absolutely can’t beat [card]Destroy the Evidence[/card], that is fine, because no one plays it, but if you can’t beat [card]Deathrite Shaman[/card], then we have a problem.

There are very few feelings in Magic worse than simply having to hope your opponent doesn’t have it, because, if he does, you can’t win, even if he can’t win if he doesn’t have it. Imagine, for example, that people play [card]Leyline of the Void[/card] and you decide to play Dredge; if you do, there is a 40% chance that you lose the game on the spot by them having it in their opening hand. This sucks.

So, how do I avoid losing to a single card? That’s tricky. It’s hard, for example, to build an Affinity deck that does not get blown out by [card]Shatterstorm[/card] or a Dredge deck that beats [card]Rest in Peace[/card]. In all likelihood, even if you manage to do that, then you make the deck worse against everyone else, ruining the point of playing them in the first place.

I’d much rather play a deck in which this can’t happen—like Jund, which is such a good deck because it doesn’t auto-lose to anything, and all its bad matches are 45/55 (though all of its good ones are 55/45. Again, I’d rather be balanced).

The only situation where it’s conceivable to play one of those decks, to me, is when you have reason to believe there won’t be a lot of hate for you. I’m a pessimist—I think I can’t accurately predict everything people are going to do, and I don’t want to risk it, so I almost never play those decks, but there are certainly moments for them. Affinity, for example, was a great deck at PT Return to Ravnica, since almost no one had dedicated hate, but it became a lot worse in the following tournaments (as is usually the case with this type of deck).

• Good Decks Have Free Wins

This is not exactly a requirement—you don’t need free wins to have a good deck. However, if you can see free wins, that’s definitely a plus. Free wins basically mean that you win the game without having to do much work, by virtue of playing a card you would normally already play. Example of free wins include just playing a turn two [card]Bitterblossom[/card] and beating half the decks in the format, or a turn two [card]Putrid Leech[/card] that randomly kills people alone, or a [card]Wasteland[/card] that stops your opponent from casting any spells out of a Delver deck, or a t2 [card]Stoneforge Mystic[/card] for [card]Batterskull[/card], or a Counterbalance/Top lock.

If you decide to play a card like [card]Stone Rain[/card], you will get some wins just because of that, but they are not free, because, when it doesn’t win you the game, you have Stone Rain in your deck—a very real cost. Those other cards, though, will be responsible for wins while also being good when they aren’t winning you the game by themselves, and if you can identify or add those to your deck then that often pushes it to the top.

• Good Decks Have a Good Sideboard

One of the things that draws me the most to a deck is a good sideboard. We often look only at the main deck, even when we’re building, but sideboarded games amount to most of the games we play in a tournament. Some decks like mono-colored aggro decks have almost no good sideboard options—a horrible trait, because everyone’s deck will be better against you post-board. If your deck is good but does not have a good sideboard, you should look elsewhere.

In general, I’m a fan of cheap answers—cards like [card]Duress[/card], [card]Ghastly Demise[/card], [card]Negate[/card], [card]Dispel[/card], or [card]Darkblast[/card] make for awesome sideboard cards because they lower your curve in matches where you need it lowered, while still having a strong impact in the late game. I’m also a fan of cards like [card]Wrath of God[/card], when they do something that your opponent wouldn’t necessarily expect you to be able to do.

I like generic cards more—I like to keep my “specific answers,” such as [card]Rule of Law[/card], to a maximum of one deck, preferring to play things against archetypes rather than against specific decks (i.e. [card]Duress[/card] can be played against any combo or control, whereas [card]Rule of Law[/card] will completely cold Storm most of the time but will not be any good against [card]Scapeshift[/card]). This style of sideboard (the one that I like) leads more naturally to control decks, because they are the ones who can afford a bunch of generic answers—aggro decks generally have less things to take out, and need more targeted hate that makes a bigger impact per card.

Good Decks Win

Alright, we’ve gotten to the most important part… this is, in a way, the only true “rule” of what makes a good deck good: it wins. Nothing else really matters, though you have to be wary of the sample size—winning a couple games does not mean it’s a deck that “wins,” you have to understand why it’s winning to make sure the practice games are not a fluke. If a deck has none of the characteristics I mentioned but still wins every game, then it’s a good deck—it will normally not be the case, but it could happen. Remember that those things I mentioned are only guidelines, traits you should look for, things you should include in your deck and that will generally make a deck good, but they are not absolute.

I hope you’ve enjoyed this, see you next week!

PV

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