If winning is what is important to you, The Goal (capitalized as a reminder that among the many possible goals you can pursue in any hobby, here I mean WINNING) in deck selection is to pick the deck that gives you the best chance to win the tournament. This is obvious in theory, but in practice people use heuristics—shortcuts—that often serve their psychological needs at the expense of their win percentage.
These heuristics lead us down paths that are close to the optimal path, the winning path, but each heuristic deviates from optimal in demonstrable and predictable ways. The deviation may not lead you fully astray this tournament, or even this season, but eventually the inefficiency will be exposed, I promise you. The Magic Pro Tour Hall of Fame contains nearly as many cautionary tales about leaky deck selection as it contains heroes of consistent, rational deck selection.
There is a lot of tension in the concepts below. One instructs you to pull on some axis, another to push on that same axis. The player who is Playing to Win faces the difficult challenge of walking these tightropes. This article is about how to attempt to remove your emotion-based biases from the already tough tasks ahead of you, and to give you a place to start looking for answers where you know your process is out of balance in one or more ways and you’re tired of paying the price, tournament after tournament.
Before I get started, I should note that I continue to learn about these concepts by actually making all the mistakes on the list. Some of the deck selection mistakes described below I made 10 years ago, some I made last week, and some I made 10 years ago and last week.
1) The Goal Is Not to Avoid Feeling Helpless
You play two rounds with your combo deck. In round 1, you drew your combo pieces and the opponent’s creatures stood no chance. In round 2, you couldn’t find the combo pieces and you got run over without any hope of winning. You walked away from the table after round 2 feeling like your deck completely malfunctioned.
Your friend plays two rounds with her control deck. Each round is a similar grindy, drawn-out battle and she emerges from round 1 with a close win and a close loss from round 2.
You are both 1-1. You both have 3 match points. Maybe she could have played round 2 better, maybe you could have built your deck better to avoid games like those you experienced in your round 2. But you both are 1-1.
Personally, even if I suspected that these were totally typical results for these decks, I have a tendency to evaluate the control deck as having performed better. The frustration and helplessness that accompanies losing in a “blowout,” an uncompetitive game or match becomes a stain on the deck. This is a leak.
Craig Wescoe doesn’t suffer from this leak, and it’s one of the things that separates him from his peers on the Pro Tour. Craig might have other blind spots in his deck selection (he seems to value Plains more highly than the other basic lands), but Craig is not afraid of a bad matchup that results in a blowout.
Craig and I both played the following GW Hate Bears list (with 2 cards of each other) at Grand Prix Pittsburgh.
Craig finished 4th in the tournament, picking off fetchland and Summoner’s Pact player after player. I went 6-3 Day 1, missing Day 2, and lost 3 straight rounds to miss against 3 different decks that had absolutely no interest in searching their libraries: Elves, Merfolk, and Affinity (Affinity ended up knocking Wescoe out as well, but not until the semifinals). GW Hate Bears’s strongest interaction point by far is in how it messes with the format’s key assumption that searching the library is a good idea. Well, Werfolk, Elves, and Affinity missed that memo on the key to the format and are heavy, heavy favorites against Hate Bears.
I felt so helpless watching my opponent completely overrun my 2/2s with Elf lords and Collected Companies. I had absolutely no chance. Wescoe remarked about the matchup, “You can’t beat everything in Modern.” The fact is that Amulet and fetchland-based control were all over the winner’s metagame in this Grand Prix, and Craig Wescoe made the Top 4 because he wasn’t afraid of feeling helpless if the pairings didn’t break his way.
If you are 65% to win a certain round, it doesn’t matter whether the 35% downside appears on the pairings sheet or in the opening hand or in the topdeck on turn 12. You’re 65% to win that round, and that’s all that matters.
2) The Goal Is Not to Avoid “Punting”
Some players have almost the opposite concern, which leads to an opposite but similar leak. The trauma of being helpless in a matchup has a counterpart in the trauma of knowing you could have helped yourself win, but didn’t. You punted.
Punting shouldn’t feel good. But it also shouldn’t scar you so much that you avoid playing difficult-to-pilot decks or decks with which you are not expertly familiar.
I’ve heard players explicitly state, “I know [control deck X or combo deck Y] is the best deck, but I just don’t think I can play it well.” I’ve said it myself. This is a tricky one, because avoiding decks you aren’t competent with is an important filter, but avoiding decks you are competent with but not perfect with is a leak.
Again, taking an example from GP Pittsburgh, many players played their old favorite deck, to their old mediocre results, rather than playing a less familiar but almost certainly better Amulet Bloom or Jund deck. Walking the line between avoiding decks you cannot play and avoiding decks you cannot play perfectly is really tough, but try to spot when the fear of punting is hijacking your ability to evaluate whether deck A played at 85% is actually stronger than deck B at 95%.
3) The Goal Is Not to Demonstrate Creative/Level-2+ Thinking
Never playing the obvious deck is a significant leak.
Changing five cards, not because you have reliable reason to but because you don’t want to play a stock list, is a significant leak.
Some players just need their fingerprints on the deck list in order to feel a sense of ownership and connection to the deck and the event. These warm, fuzzy feelings are sometimes ends in and of themselves—reasons to play Magic and enhancements of your enjoyment of your favorite hobby, etc. But they are warm, fuzzy leaks. The Goal is not to feel good. The Goal is not to generate article or video hits because you are known as a creative deckbuilder. The Goal is to win.
People will object to this. I’ve heard all the objections. At the end of the day, maybe you have your own goals and those goals factor into your big-picture calculus. What I am saying is that your win rate will eventually suffer when those goals deviate from The Goal. That’s all I’m saying.
Go get your article hits, go generate an epic story to tell on social media. I hope we get paired along the way.
4) The Goal Is Not to Build the Best Deck with the Best Card
This one is just a pure shortcut that gets you some of the way towards identifying the best deck, but not all the way. A very strong case can be made that Lightning Bolt is the “best card” in Modern. I heard a good argument that Ancient Stirrings is one of the best cards from last weekend. The Goal is not to figure out which 71 cards “get the most” out of Lightning Bolt or Ancient Stirrings. The Goal is to show up with the 75 that wins the most.
This one becomes a leak when you become dismissive of decks full of “bad cards” or decks that “look unexciting.” Usually that means you are evaluating cards in a broader context (format rather than deck) and then evaluating decks by reference to those broader evaluations of the cards. Context is king. The Lantern Control deck is extremely powerful, even if some of the permanents in plays are almost laughably “underpowered.”
5) The Goal Is Not to Do Well in Every Tournament
Tournament payouts are top-heavy, and there is basically no difference in finishing 300th or 3,000th in a 3000-player event. There are so many concepts in this article that are all about the tension between a good habit and a leak. Here again, consistency in deck selection is important, but if you find yourself picking the stock deck every time, never going with a brew that’s been testing well or even trying to test new decks, you are selecting your deck from a smaller universe of possible decks. When you or your friend has a winning idea, you won’t be using it because your favorite deckbuilder or pro player didn’t already write the article about it.
This is the leak I often identify in the players who seem to always finish 5-4, 6-3, etc., while watching their friends in the Top 8 who are of similar skill level but make bolder deck selection choices, sometimes striking out completely and sometimes hitting a home run.
If your opponents seem to play pretty well against you because they have always prepared against the archetype you’re playing, this may be your leak. Likewise the same can be said if you spend all your energy learning how someone else would sideboard with their deck, and no energy on how to create better matchups against the top decks. You sometimes have to play a card in your sideboard that wasn’t in anyone else’s sideboard last week. It might be a mistake, or it might be what wins you the tournament.
Final Note: The Leak you SHOULD Have
Playing ethically, honestly, and in a sporting manner is, to some, a leak. If I tell someone to build a resume of wins first, not a reputation for building cool decks, they might respond, “well, if winning is more important than reputation, why not scum someone out of a tournament?” This article is about becoming conscious of the ways in which you give up equity in a tournament. There are some tradeoffs not worth making. For me, “what are the rules of engagement?” is a question that ranks higher and which I answer before I ever reach “what deck should I play?” But “what do I want my reputation as a deckbuilder to be?” is a question that follows and ranks lower than “what deck should I play?”
We can agree to disagree about how important winning is relative to building your reputation as a creative thinker in the game, but I hope we can agree about honesty and sportsmanship. Without those, there’s no chance of a clean win to enjoy.