When to Bring a Knife to a Gun Fight

When to bring a knife to a gun fight

In 2002 a masked man walked into a store in the state of Wisconsin brandishing a large knife. He pointed it at the clerk behind the counter and demanded that he hand over all of the cash in the register.

His face was concealed and he spoke in a deeper voice so as to minimise any chance of the witness correctly identifying him. The store was located in an area which meant the thief could leave through the side door away from the eyes of the public and make a quick getaway.

However, the plan had one major flaw.

The shop he was robbing was a gun and ammunition store.

The clerk pulled a loaded hand gun out from below the counter and shot the would-be robber in the chest.

The would-be robber survived but was arested at the scene and has been immortalised on the internet as one of the stupidest criminals in the world.

So what can we learn from this story?

“That being a criminal is dangerous, especially if you’re an idiot?”

Well yeah but that’s not really where I was going…

“That you love to pad your articles out with stories unrelated to Magic?”

Well that’s just unfair; I am going somewhere with this…

“That you don’t know how to correctly spell arrested?”

Oh whoops…

Ok hold on because now we are getting sidetracked.

I’ll just tell you what I was going for. The moral of this story is:

Never bring a knife to a gun fight.

So this is a saying that has been around for a long time and as far as it relates to Magic can be summarised as: Don’t go into a tournament with a deck that is inferior to the other decks being used by the other players.

“Did you really just ‘summarize’ an 8 word phrase with a 20 word sentence?”


Just leave it alright.

So anyway, with a constructed PTQ season approaching I thought I’d write an article that has a look at how to pick a deck that is right for you.

Now plenty of articles have been written about how to choose the right deck for you but most can be summed up as follows:
Play the best deck; or
If there is no time to learn how to play the best deck play the deck you’re most comfortable/proficient with

Now for the most part this is pretty sound advice. However there is more to take into account when picking a deck.

So despite just explaining the lesson we can all learn from this botched robbery I’m going to spend the rest of the article discussing why this motto isn’t always applicable to Magic and sometimes it could actually be the correct decision to take a knife into a Magic tournament.

Wait! Wait! That did not come out right.

I, and Channel Fireball, hold no responsibility for any player taking a knife into a Magic tournament.

What I meant was that sometimes despite there being an obvious best deck (i.e. the gun) there are a number of factors which could mean that your actual best chance of winning the tournament is to run a strictly “inferior” deck (i.e. the knife).

The “best” deck is not always the best deck for you.

So let’s get started.

When you’re not fast enough off the mark to win a quick draw

Skill intensive mirror matches

Now a lot of people cringe at the very mention of Caw-Blade but there are many others, particularly amongst the top calibre of players, who would say that pre-New Phyrexia (pre-Batterskull) standard was the most skill intensive standard format that we have seen in a very long time.

Caw-Blade was a gun that could pierce bullet proof vests while competing against a field of pointy sticks. The top tables were primarily Caw-Blade mirrors and for the most part these matches were decided by a player’s ability to play tightly and particularly know how to play the mirror.

This was around the time I was just getting back into Magic and knowing that Caw-Blade was the best deck I picked it up and took it to an upcoming PTQ with barely any testing. I started out 4-0 beating various other decks only to lose the next 3 rounds to the mirror and finish in 9th place. I was severely outclassed in the mirror by good players who knew the intricacies of the deck and knew how to beat the mirror. The truth was, there was no way I was ever going to win that event unless I was the only one there playing Caw-Blade.

I could shoot the players with pointy sticks but when it came to facing an opponent with another gun my aim wasn’t good enough and I was too slow with my draw.

Now this doesn’t mean I never had a chance to win the tournament. It just meant that I was never going to win with Caw-Blade. In reality I should have taken a mono red deck list metagamed towards beating Caw-Blade and hoped to draw well all day and get a bit lucky.

But this isn’t as simple as just “know how to win the mirror match”. The truth is that some of us, myself included, will never be the greatest technical players. Each of us has different skills and if you can recognise that maybe you aren’t going to win in a straight up battle of wits on an even playing field, than change the field. Make it not about who can play the tightest. If the mirror match is about skill and the mono red versus Caw-Blade match is about the mono red deck getting a good draw maybe you’re better off being mono red and hoping to get lucky.

I know a few players who aren’t bad but think that they always need to play control because it allows them to outplay their opponents. The truth is, while they may be outplaying the lower level players they are putting themselves directly into a battle of wits against better control players and they fall short each time, whereas if they were to play an aggressive deck they could still outplay the lesser players while putting themselves in a position to get lucky against the better ones.

When you are fast enough off the mark to win a quick draw

Luck based mirror matches

This is the opposite of the scenario above. Occasionally the best deck is so luck based that there is hardly any advantage to the better player.

Following the release of Zendikar and even Worldwake the gun of choice was Jund. Bituminous Blast into Bloodbraid Elf into Blightning while not necessarily common was game ending and the more frequent Bloodbraid elf into Blightning was so dominant that Wizards created Obstinate Baloth in an attempt to slow it down. Ironically this was mainly just used by Jund in the mirror match more than anything else.

Owen Turtenwald
Grand Prix Washington DC 2010 – 2nd Place

[deck]4 Dragonskull Summit
3 Forest
1 Lavaclaw Reaches
3 Mountain
4 Raging Ravine
4 Savage Lands
3 Swamp
4 Verdant Catacombs
4 Bloodbraid Elf
1 Broodmate Dragon
4 Putrid Leech
1 Siege-Gang Commander
4 Sprouting Thrinax
4 Bituminous Blast
4 Blightning
4 Lightning Bolt
4 Maelstrom Pulse
2 Sarkhan the Mad
2 Terminate
2 Doom Blade
4 Duress
4 Goblin Ruinblaster
1 Malakir Bloodwitch
2 Prophetic Prism
2 Pyroclasm[/deck]

This deck frustrated a lot of players. Not only because of its power level but because the cascade ability which was key to the deck was so random (or at least felt that way) that whenever you lost (no matter whether you were the Jund deck or the deck playing against it) you felt like you had lost to bad luck rather than skill.

The truth was despite being built to make each cascade as good as possible the deck did have a lot of variance and there really wasn’t an extensive amount of decision making to be made. Play your creatures, turn them sideways and hope to cascade into the right card for the situation in front of you.

Now of course good players would do better on average with the deck than weaker ones but when a match can be decided by who drew the most Bloodbraid Elves or who cascaded into the most Blightnings the advantage gained from being the better player was much lower than it is in usual matchups.

So what did 2010 player of the year Brad Nelson do?

He played a deck that, while not considered to be the “best” deck, was considerably more consistent and provided an opportunity for him to edge out incremental advantage by playing better than his opponents.

And he was rewarded for it with the trophy at GP Washington.

Brad Nelson
Grand Prix Washington DC 2010 – Winner

[deck]2 Arid Mesa
4 Celestial Colonnade
4 Glacial Fortress
7 Island
5 Plains
2 Sejiri Refuge
2 Tectonic Edge
4 Baneslayer Angel
4 Wall of Omens
3 Day of Judgment
2 Elspeth, Knight-Errant
2 Everflowing Chalice
2 Gideon Jura
3 Jace, the Mind Sculptor
1 Martial Coup
2 Mind Spring
3 Oblivion Ring
4 Path to Exile
4 Spreading Seas
2 Celestial Purge
1 Elspeth, Knight-Errant
1 Jace Beleren
3 Kor Firewalker
1 Kor Sanctifiers
1 Martial Coup
4 Negate
1 Oblivion Ring
1 Sphinx of Lost Truths[/deck]

Interestingly enough Brad beat Jund in the final round of the GP, which was being piloted by none other than 2011 Player of the Year Owen Turtenwald.

When everyone else is wearing bullet proof vests

Decks that when they are known to be the “best” are easily hated out

Youmelia Gay
Undefeated Day 1 of GP Amsterdam 2011 – Legacy

[deck]1 Angel of Despair
1 Elesh Norn, Grand Cenobite
4 Faerie Macabre
1 Flame-Kin Zealot
4 Golgari Grave-Troll
4 Golgari Thug
4 Ichorid
1 Iona, Shield of Emeria
3 Narcomoeba
4 Nether Shadow
4 Phantasmagorian
4 Shambling Shell
1 Sphinx of Lost Truths
4 Stinkweed Imp
4 Street Wraith
4 Bridge from Below
4 Cabal Therapy
4 Dread Return
4 Gitaxian Probe
1 Ancestor’s Chosen
1 Blightsteel Colossus
4 Chancellor of the Annex
2 Gigapede
1 Platinum Angel
1 River Kelpie
1 Sphinx of Lost Truths
4 Surgical Extraction[/deck]

Have a look at this list. This deck went undefeated day 1 of GP Amsterdam this year and it doesn’t run a single land!

Because the deck has no mana to untap, all that each new turn provides is an opportunity to draw a card and as such to dredge. For that reason the deck runs 4 of both [card]Street Wraith[/card] and [card]Gitaxian Probe[/card] which both become the equivalent of a Time Walk that costs 2 life.

The deck can win as early as turn 2, is essentially impervious to counter spells and effectively has 8 Time Walks and no mana screw!

Whether this deck can accurately be described as a gun is a hard question considering the role dredge plays in Legacy but even if it can be hated out how can you look at the raw power of this deck and not call it a gun.

So what beats this gun?

What beats most guns?

Bullet Proof Vests…

For this deck [card]Leyline of the Void[/card] is one such bullet proof vest. This deck literally scoops to a resolved Leyline and assuming your opponent knows this than they can choose to take the 85% chance of finding one in their opening hand by mulliganing any hand without one.

Any opponent who has a bullet proof vest and manages to find it is going to be mid-way through their second chicken schnitzel by the time most players are finishing their match.

Now this isn’t to say you should never run such a deck. But when deciding on a deck, you do have to consider whether your opponents are going to have access to bullet proof vests and if they are likely to be bringing them to the tournament. If the answer to these questions is yes than probably best to leave the gun at home and take your own vest for those players who aren’t smart enough to reach the same conclusion.

Dredge is one of those decks where everyone regularly has access to bullet proof vests.

When you don’t know how to shoot a gun

Complicated decks that require a lot of practice

Now sometimes the gun is Skullclamp Ravager Affinity which could win a tournament in the hands of a well trained chimp. I actually lost round 1 of Regionals 2004 to a chimp that belonged to one of the local shop owners. It was embarrassing to lose to him but his next round opponent had monkey feces thrown at him so I was ok getting away with only a match loss.

Ok so maybe it was a 7 year old kid, I can’t remember clearly it was a long time ago. Either way he was playing the mirror and had to ask what modular meant. However, he managed to draw 7 Disciple of the Vaults in 2 short games and tried to have them deal damage to my creatures instead of to me each time an artifact died. I was pretty disappointed with that match loss.

However, for every Ravager Affinity there is an “eggs” deck that is so complicated that any player who wants to run it in a tournament actually has to prove their IQ is high enough or the tournament organisers will forbid them from registering because they will only make the event go to time every round while they fail to finish a single game.

Sylvain Lauriol
Sunny Side Up – 2006 Magic World Championships – Extended

[deck]4 Archaeological Dig
2 Cephalid Coliseum
4 Ghost Quarter
3 Island
2 Plains
2 Seat of the Synod
3 Snow-Covered Island
4 Chromatic Sphere
4 Chromatic Star
4 Conjurer’s Bauble
2 Cunning Wish
2 Darkwater Egg
4 Lotus Bloom
2 Mossfire Egg
2 Mystical Teachings
1 Orim’s Chant
1 Pyrite Spellbomb
4 Reshape
4 Second Sunrise
4 Skycloud Egg
1 Sungrass Egg
1 Tolarian Winds
2 Ancient Grudge
1 Angel’s Grace
1 Brain Freeze
3 Engineered Explosives
2 Orim’s Chant
1 Pithing Needle
1 Reclaim
1 Seedtime
1 Spoils of the Vault
1 Trickbind
1 Wipe Away[/deck]

How does this win you ask?

Usually via [card]Pyrite Spellbomb[/card] for 20 on turn 4. Getting to the point where you know you are safe to go off, and then actually going off without screwing it up takes a whole lot of work and not something that should be attempted without a lot of practice games under your belt.

Now whether or not this was actually the gun during worlds 2006 is not certain but it is a decent example for the point I’m trying to make. If this was the gun, than anyone who didn’t have time to practice with it extensively would have only been doing themselves a disservice by running it instead of one of the better looking knives because they were never going to clean sweep the event with a deck this complicated.

When you are a master swordsman

When you are so good with a particular deck that you can make up for the difference in deck power levels

Matt Nass – Elves
Winner Grand Prix Oakland 2010, Extended

[deck]4 Forest
3 Horizon Canopy
4 Misty Rainforest
1 Pendelhaven
1 Temple Garden
4 Verdant Catacombs
2 Arbor Elf
4 Boreal Druid
4 Elvish Archdruid
4 Elvish Visionary
1 Essence Warden
1 Eternal Witness
4 Heritage Druid
4 Llanowar Elves
4 Nettle Sentinel
1 Ranger of Eos
1 Regal Force
4 Cloudstone Curio
4 Glimpse of Nature
1 Primal Command
4 Summoner’s Pact
1 Burrenton Forge-Tender
1 Gaddock Teeg
4 Ghost Quarter
1 Loaming Shaman
3 Ranger of Eos
4 Umezawa’s Jitte
1 Viridian Shaman[/deck]

Here is the Grand Prix winning elves list from GP Oakland in early 2010.

Now was this deck the gun?

Probably not.

The deck was good and certainly the best choice for Matt Nass, but it’s unlikely it was the gun in this tournament. Of the players who ran it only two managed to make day 2. This compared to the 21 Zoo players and 19 Depths/Foundry players would indicate that general consensus was that either one or both of those decks were the real guns.

So why would Matt Nass play this deck over one of those?

Because he knew that he could make up for the slightly decreased power level by outplaying his opponents with a deck he knew inside out.

And a 13-0 start and the GP trophy would indicate that that was exactly what he did.

Now people love to have a dig at Nass about being one of the worst members of the Channel Fireball team and that’s fine. But keep in mind he managed to make level 6 this year while starting university and starring in the Inbetweeners movie. In my books that is a pretty solid effort!

Matt Nass strutting his stuff at a GP and on the Red Carpet

When you are sick of shooting at the same target over and over again

When the best deck is so painfully dull to play you’d prefer to be reading 4 year old gossip magazines in the waiting room of your Doctor’s office.

Occasionally the best deck is so mind numbing that players just cannot stand to play it. Magic is a game, it should be fun. While winning is usually fun, sometimes there are decks that are so painful to play that even winning cannot make up for it. Now occasionally the deck is so powerful that you’ll have to suck it up and run it but other times you’d be better off playing a lesser deck that doesn’t make drowning yourself in the toilet between rounds sound appealing. Now this doesn’t necessarily mean that the deck is easy to play, it’s just that there is little excitement involved in the games.

For me one such deck was Valakut in standard. At various times Valakut was the gun and I tried and I tried to play it online but for the life of me I couldn’t do it. I’d often start daily events 2-0 and be so sick of it by round 3 that I’d end up going 2-2 and receive no prize. Many players loved Valakut and I’ll admit that once [card]Solemn Simulacrum[/card] was reprinted it became more bearable (essentially for nostalgic reasons alone) but there were certainly times where I couldn’t stomach the thought of gold fishing the deck through another event.

In short if you aren’t enjoying yourself you probably aren’t in the best frame of mind and your ability to win a tournament will certainly suffer.


Admittedly a lot of what I’ve covered sounds obvious when you read it but players make these mistakes regularly. A lot of it involves being honest with yourself regarding what you are and are not capable of.

Next time you are trying to decide on which deck to run in your next PTQ take a second to consider if any of these are applicable and if not then you should probably be running whatever is considered to be the best deck.

Manabogged on Twitter and MTGO


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