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Breaking Through: Added Percentages in Deck Choice

I often get asked why I play rogue decks so much, and the answer is usually more complex than the requester had expected. There is one universal truth as to why I build differently from most people however, and that is an element of surprise. That is to say, just by playing a unique deck, you are increasing your chances of winning any given game in a way that cannot be accomplished by anything else. This is not the only way to improve your chances of winning though, and today I would like to go over the different ways to add percentages to your chances of winning that fall outside of the field of play and instead hinge on how one goes about choosing a deck.

Last week we discussed how playing yesterday’s net-deck in today’s environment will often lead to poorer results than if an alternate method were chosen. Today I would like to address the topic in more of a timeless sense, as opposed to applying it to a specific deck. Some of these will seem more “generic” than others, but many people still fail to capitalize on any of them so I feel it is important to reiterate them regardless. Choosing a deck based on one of the following criteria will almost assuredly aid you in the W column.

Going Rogue

Obviously this area is the one I get asked the most about, so I figured I may as well lead with it. People not in the know often criticize those players who always play rogue decks as not being as competitive as possible. Unfortunately, for most of these rogue deck builders, that is in fact the truth. There is a point however, where building rogue goes from being a non-competitive venture to being not only competitive, but strategically superior at the same time.

One of the biggest pieces of advice most players receive when they are learning to become better is to playtest heavily. Now, playtesting is essential for learning one’s own deck (a point we will discuss later) and it also improves matchup knowledge, but simultaneously, can rut the player into habits, both good and bad.

Looking at a commonly played deck like Mono Red, you will see many of the same plays develop over time: Turn 1 Figure, turn 2 2nd guy and attack, turn 3 Ram Gang attack. Very rarely is this line of play going to be bad, as that player has tested against the main decks and understands that in almost every conceivable scenario, your line of play will trump your opponent’s response. Lets now imagine that your opponent is playing a deck that you did not test against. Lets even go as far as to say he is playing Necroskitter, Dusk Urchins, and Everlasting Torment in the maindeck (this may or may not have actually occurred). What happens to that person’s line of play when a Dusk Urchins hits the table on turn 3?

Well, theoretically, that player should Bolt the Urchins before attacking and continue onward. Realistically however, I can assure you this was not the case in more than half of the red matchups I played against with that deck. Players would be amazed at their awesome start, fall into the grove of “correct” play, and walk right into the 5 for 1 that is a Dusk Urchins battling a Ram Gang. Our very own Zaiem Beg even wrote about such an incident here.

It is not that these players are bad or anything of the sort, but rather that they have conditioned themselves into making habitual plays and now a third party variable has been added that they have improperly adjusted for or failed to adjust to altogether. Obviously these types of mistakes are going to occur less at the Pro Tour level than at a PTQ, but the point remains regardless.

Aside from players not knowing how to properly play against your new rogue deck, the issue of sideboard options becomes relevant as well. Much like the habit forming plays we just discussed, sideboarding strategies are often memorized (or now written down) and it is likely that a player will wrongfully sideboard against your rogue concoction, if they even have sideboard options for you in the first place.

These two things combined showcase a weakness in the majority of players. You are invalidating some amount of testing that person has put in and can catch them completely off guard. This is not meant to be an article on how players should not rely so heavily on testing practices to navigate through games, but that fact is true none the less. It is still an area to exploit and thus, the rogue deckbuilder walks into battle with an edge already developed before a single card is played. Of course just as players should not rely on testing to determine actual games, a rogue deckbuilder should not rely on the fact of added percentages to get them over the hump. A bad deck is still a bad deck regardless of how rogue it is. If however, your choices have boiled down to two equally good decks for a metagame, playing the one that is more rogue will often be the better choice.

Playing What You Know

Just as playing a rogue deck adds percentage points to your game before a card is ever cast, playing a deck you are well versed in can and should do the exact same. Assuming you have not been playing that deck wrong the entire time, you should be able to play the deck better than someone who has just picked it up. This amounts to a few different things during actual gameplay.

Assuming the deck is a known and a semi-popular deck, you should bring an advantage into the mirror matches. Regardless of how much better it is to bring a deck you understand to a tournament, it is still the case that a lot of players will grab a deck within a week prior to the tournament and bring that. It is going to be the case that you will play your deck better than 99% of those people. Thus, assuming all else is equal (meaning no mulligans etc.) you should be able to win most if not all of those mirror matches. This fact alone is a reason to not shift your deck choice during a long PTQ season.

A good example of this as of recently (I understand this one has been a bit played out but it demonstrates it perfectly) is Paulo Vitor Damo da Rosa playing Faeries. Fae was the best deck for a long time and there were plenty of mirror matches run at any Standard event, yet somehow, PV was able to emerge among the top of them multiple times. Obviously PV is an amazing player but plenty of other amazing players also entered those events with him and found themselves sight-seeing for a day or two. It was Paulo’s familiarity and comfort with Fae that was able to propel him to the top time and time again.

When you are familiar with a deck, you are obviously able to play more strategically sound with it, but there are other benefits. You will generally sit down more comfortable than a last minute switch would lead you to be, which only makes you play better and more level-headed; something that is invaluable in this game. In addition, you are able to make on-the-fly sideboarding decisions better because you have seen more variations of opposing decks. The rogue builder gets an edge in sideboarding because people test against one version of a deck and fall into a ritual when sideboarding. If however, you are a seasoned player with your deck of choice, you have encountered many small and large variations of the decks opposite you. This means you already know what to do when your opponent is running Ashenmoor Gouger over Ram Gang, or understand the routes to victory versus Broodmate Dragon as opposed to Baneslayer Angel.

Of course it is not enough to just know a deck, as an outdated deck will still end up being bad, but once again, all other things equal, a deck that you are comfortable and familiar with will be better than a last minute switch. It is good to note that forcing a deck at every PTQ during a season when it clearly has become outclassed introduces more harm than good. But, as time moves on, and a metagame shifts, you may find yourself in the following situation.

Resurrecting a Dinosaur

In choosing a deck, there are other directions to go that can embrace some of the advantages of going rogue, but are more user friendly for those individuals who would just rather play and not spend infinite hours working on new ideas only to be disappointed 90% of the time. The best technique, but one that is not really used as much as it should be, is bringing back a deck that has fallen out of favor. That is not to say a deck that was just proven unplayable recently and thus knocked out of the metagame, but instead, a deck that was good a few months ago, but a metagame shift had made it a bad choice. Subsequent metagame shifts may have made it a good choice once again which should invite players to look into it more even if this is not capitalized on often enough.

The best example of this is the recent surge of Reveillark. Reveillark is such a powerful card and strategy that it has always hung around, but surges of Faeries have led to a decrease in the big 4/3 flier. Recently though, players have realized that Reveillark was never in fact dead, but just needed a metagame shift to propel it back into its winning ways.

Some other decks are approaching that position right now. Kithkin for example, has all but been written off as playable, but if it can find a way to make 5-Color Control a coin flip matchup, I feel as though it may be a wise choice moving forward. This is because of the surge of Red decks of all varieties that Kithkin loves to prey on. Dismissing Kithkin as a legitimate deck altogether may only hurt you in your search for the “right” deck for that upcoming PTQ. Decks that have had success in the past are rarely found to be “bad” decks, and therefore the only reason for their disappearance is a more hostile format or metagame. Once that hostility has lessened, the deck can re-emerge. Affinity has fought through this for years, becoming nearly unplayable during times of heavy hate, and then morphing into the best deck of Extended when people forget about it.

Of course, bringing back a dinosaur in its net-deck glory is probably a mistake as some work should be done to modify it to cope with other decks added to the metagame and improve any weak matchups that may exist. Still, with the proper modifications, there is no reason a “dead” deck cannot move on to winning once again.

It is never a bad idea to go back 3-6 months and look at what was winning back then and see if it still exists in the current metagame. If it doesn’t and you cannot find a reason for that statement to be true, look into modifying it and bringing it back. You will surely catch some people off guard and with depleted sideboards.

Predicting and Adapting

This is the most common of the techniques to improve win percentages but is still far from universally accepted and used. In fact, I would say less than half of PTQers use all of the above techniques combined and will instead steal that latest net-deck card for card and sleeve it up on location.

The goal here is to correctly evaluate an upcoming metagame and alter your deck accordingly to run head first into said metagame. Granted, all of the above techniques want to do this to a certain extent, as designing a deck to beat an irrelevant metagame is a waste of time, but in this particular method, all other techniques are absent. You are essentially taking those net-decks and trying to alter them in a way that makes them more appropriate for the new metagame. The deck may very well look worse in a vacuum, but for the expected metagame it is better. These modifications can be anything from varied threats, to sideboard changes, to new technology that has yet to be discovered by the masses.

Very rarely will a format remain stagnant for more than a 2 week period, so using data collected from past weeks at face value will only prepare you for a tournament that is long gone. You must assess whether the decks that won 2 weeks ago will elicit a response from some deck that specifically beats them, or whether a deck that beats those decks will emerge etc. This is essentially what I said last week so I won’t harp on it too long, but it is one of the ways to gain an advantage from your deck before ever sitting down for round 1.

Takeaways

The important thing to understand here is that Magic has a much larger plane upon which percentages that decide success or failure rest. So much is made about technical play and in-game strategy, likely because those areas occupy the largest portion of skill influenced outcomes, but they hardly are the end of preparation. Everything from deck choice, to card choices, to lifestyle habits, confidence levels, psychology, playtesting, memory skills, and metagame knowledge alter the outcome of a game, some before the game has even started.

It is crucial that a player attempts to cover as many of these bases as possible (although mastering everyone is theoretically impossible). While the in-game decisions obviously have immediate impacts on the game, the decisions and preparations made prior to that are of equal importance even if it is not readily apparent. Choosing a deck based on one of the above methods goes towards helping your win percentage much more so than grabbing a deck the Thursday before a tournament, running 5 games with it, and sleeving it up.

I am sure I will talk about some of the other out of game influences in future articles but that is going to be it for this week. I received a lot of emails and comments for my last article and would like to thank everyone that responded. The feedback is always appreciated and it is good to see that I have been welcomed with open arms. Feel free to post any questions in the comments again and I will try my best to get them all answered. Good luck as the PTQ season comes to an end!

Conley Woods

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