Breaking Through – Building Blocks


One of the most common pieces of feedback I tend to receive after the dust has settled on some tournament that I had a successful run in, involves some line of reasoning that leads to “your deck was good for you but that’s it.” In essence, the implication here is that I built a deck for only myself and therefore in the hands of anyone else that deck is not good. Think about this for a second. The accusation implies that I have somehow built a deck that performs better for me than others, which is quite absurd.

My Deck-building Strategy

The real difference between when I play a deck and when the guy complaining about losing with it plays the deck is time. Rather than build decks suited towards only me, what actually happens is that I tend to build decks for a specific tournament or metagame. Once removed from that metagame or tournament, the deck is not bad necessarily, but does need updating and tweaking to allow for it to transition into a broader set of tournaments. In essence, I build for a tournament, not for a format.

This does not mean building for a format is wrong or worse than building for a tournament, but I simply do not do the former. Today I would like to discuss the difference between the two methods including the merits of each, and why one fits better for me personally.

First, let’s get the definitions out of the way. To build for a tournament means just that. You are building a deck and sideboard designed to attack a specific tournament on a specific date. This requires a few things on the builder’s part.

1- You must know exactly what tournament you are building for. This includes dates, locations, and player base. This seems simple enough, but many people would think building a deck and then taking it to a single tournament counts as building for a tournament, which is doesn’t. Unless you are specifically attacking attributes about said tournament, you are not building for it. Building a deck in a vacuum can never include building for a tournament, which is what building something and taking it to some random tournament basically is.

2- You must have some method to predict the metagame for that tournament. Without the presumed knowledge of what you expect to show up to some tournament, it is impossible to build your deck with those decks in mind. You will be wrong some of the time, but this does not mean you did not build for a tournament. Remember that the metagame at any given tournament will likely be different than the metagame for a format as a whole, which is where the difference between the two building methods stems from.

To build for a format, you are taking a more general, “long run” approach to deck building. You are ignoring specific data about a tournament such as where it is located or the player base and instead building based on the conglomerate of individual metagames. You are using the format’s average metagame as your baseline. We will get into specifics later, but this approach is best used when there are a lot of tournaments close together which do not allow you much time to tweak or rebuild, or when knowledge about the specific tournament is not readily available.

There are some distinct advantages to each method of course. Let’s begin with building for a format. Typically, this method is used most often during a PTQ season. Often times, when a player is playing in 3 or 4 PTQs in as many weeks, it is unrealistic for him to build a new deck between each one. It is more likely that he will play a single deck through all four, while suing each PTQ as a form of playtesting for the next, with possibly one deck switch in the middle if he feels his deck is actually no good. Because of this though, the player tends to build his deck in more of a vacuum.

This works for a few reasons. First of all, it is nearly impossible to know the metagame for your state AND all of the neighboring states that are holding PTQs around the same time. This means that your reading skills for metagame prediction are a guess at best, which is not what it takes to build for a tournament. The player is building for the format out of necessity.

As we discussed before as well, time becomes a factor. While the player may be able to sculpt an entire deck designed to take down the first tournament of the string, it is unrealistic to expect the same with such short lag time between tournaments. Instead, designing a good general deck and making tweaks based on your most recent playtesting is best. While these tweaks can be geared towards format shifts, they are still more generalized than specific metagame targeting like what occurs during tournament building.

Format building also tends to be safer. With tournament building, you are taking a risk by assuming a specific metagame. This risk can pay off of course, putting you way ahead of most of the field when you are right, but can also leave you well behind others if you make the wrong calls. Building for a format on the other hand, will usually not allow you to do too many unfair things, but at the same time you will also tend to not have dead or useless cards aimed at some deck that never showed up. This leads some players to consistently build for a format, even when they believe they know some specific information about a tournament, just based on the fact that they would rather give up any potential deck advantages or disadvantages and rely purely on skill.

This means that building for a tournament is the equivalent of the home run hitter in baseball. You tend to knock one out of the park or go down swinging, but rarely hit the consistent double to left field that format building will get you. Usually a player does not want a finish that can be categorized as good but not great, but occasionally that type of finish favors them. At Worlds for example, I audibled to Zoo on day three; a classic format built deck. Yes you can go crazy and tech it out if you would like, but for the most part, Zoo is Zoo. This was because I only needed a good but not great finish of 3-3 to make top 8.

Unfortunately, a lot of [card]Blood Moon[/card]s kept that from happening, but the logic behind the decision was sound. Another time that a good but not great finish might be the goal is for someone needing only a few points to make the train at the end of a season. It may be better to guarantee a day 2 finish at a grand prix if that is what you are seeking. Typically though, if you are willing to take risks, when a deck built for the tournament actually works out, it is far better than a format built deck that works out as intended.

As we transition over to decks designed for a tournament, we encounter the time issue once again, but in reverse. Building a deck for a tournament takes a lot of research and time. This works out well when you are fortunate enough to have the time, but realistically not everyone has that luxury. A deck intended for a specific tournament that does not have the proper nurturing or research put into it often turns out real bad. This is why so many writers advocate against taking a net deck and swapping out a bunch of cards without testing. You are effectively turning the deck into a metagamed one, without preparing it like a metagame attacking deck should be.

Building for a specific tournament is usually best when the tournament is larger. This includes Grands Prix, Pro Tours, Nationals, and some 5ks. The reasoning behind this is that you know more about the player base attending and more information on the metagame if from nothing else than the massive amounts of literature devoted towards it. The first point is simple, as you basically know the crowd that will show up. You can assume a better player base as you work yourself up the chain. While some casual players may attend your local States and throw everyone off curve, just about everyone at a Grand Prix or Pro Tour is going to be there to win. Adding even more information to the tray includes things like byes.

If I have 3 byes at a Grand Prix, I can work my sideboard a little differently, as the likelihood of facing more off the cuff rogue decks goes down. At Grand Prix L.A. last year for example, I skimped on sideboard hate for Mono-Red Burn, because I assumed my 3 byes would carry me past them. That tale ends poorly as I dodged the deck all of day 1 and then ran into back to back copies to start day 2, but the principle still applies.

The second point can best be explained using local tournaments. For a PTQ season, writers will write about the format as a whole, but usually your specific PTQ found at some certain date is left off of the agenda. This means that through reading you can discern plenty about the format, but not as much about specific metagames. For Regionals on the other hand, while you still won’t get regional specific advice, the fact that all Regionals are held on the same date means that the literature is much more helpful at gearing you towards a metagame call. By narrowing in on the date of the tournament, you have gained an additional aid en route to attacking a metagame as opposed to format.

I personally, favor building for specific tournaments for most of the reasons stated above. For one thing, because I currently am honored to play this game professionally, I have more time to set aside and work on decks and analyze upcoming metagames. As we discussed, if this step is absent, no matter how good your intentions are, you are highly unfavored to succeed with a tournament-specific deck.

I also tend to only play large tournaments now. Granted, when I ran the PTQ circuit, I still built for specific tournaments, but that was based on the fact that a week between PTQs was often 30 hours to work on a deck, which was enough at the time. Still, I had less success when relying on that little time to develop a new deck so the bullet points still came back to haunt me. Every PTQ I top 8ed came after at least a 3 week empty period or was Limited, which obviously falls under different standards.

If however, and as apparently happens a lot, someone were to assume some deck of mine was built for the format as a whole as opposed to a tournament, they would find the deck lacking. Sometimes in articles I will post a deck that I feel is good for the format, but almost always when looking at my tournament results, you are looking at a tournament-specific deck. This tricks people into thinking I built my deck for my use alone, but that just isn’t true.

Look back to Worlds 2009. I played Magical Christmasland which was hugely popular after it debuted, but never really shared the success I had at Worlds after the fact. Yes a few people did well with it at States and the like, but that is just variance. If you dissect what made the deck good for Worlds but not so good after however, things become much clearer.

At Worlds, Lotus Cobra was not really looked at as a threat. Very few decks were playing the 2/1 and in those decks that were, it was often better to just kill the Baneslayer Angel that would come down on turn 3 and ignore the snake. Once players realized turn 3 or 4 Violent Ultimatums were being rained down on them though, that all changed, At Worlds, when a Jund player had the choice of turn 3 Maelstrom Pulse on my Cobra, or turn 3 Sprouting Thrinax, players tended to go for the Thrinax (at least in game 1s). At States a mere month later however, the exact opposite occurred.

I was capitalizing on an unknown factor in Lotus Cobra that simply was not possible once the cat got out of the bag so to speak. In addition, one of my biggest targets was Jund, which was hugely popular at Worlds, and while big at States, was not nearly as popular due to other decks making a showing at Worlds. Naya and Fog decks got much more popular, making land destruction a worse strategy. All of these things resulted in the metagame for those specific tournaments being drastically different. Meanwhile, a deck like Jund was fine at both, because most Jund builds were aimed at the format and not just one tournament, showcasing the extreme ends of both methods.

Like we discussed, it is not that one method is strictly better than the other, but rather when and how to use each one so as to be as advantaged as possible. Being a well rounded player goes beyond just being good at limited and constructed, as it includes things like this, and being able to recognize when one method is favored over the other, whether that be due to resources or some other reason. Thanks for reading.

Conley Woods


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