Play the Best Deck or Beat It

A smart man makes a mistake, learns from it, and never makes that mistake again. But a wise man finds a smart man and learns from him how to avoid the mistake altogether.

Roy H. Williams

Today’s topic is a unique one. There are multiple ways to view the problem of choosing between a stronger deck that is a known quantity and thus targeted or playing a potentially weaker deck that has specific strengths or is less of a target. I look forward to giving my perspective on this topic and also sharing some insightful tips that will help you win more beginning today.

As is customary, we will start with last week’s goals recap! I have enjoyed lifting weights more than running and have looked forward to weight training days. I had two great workouts and want to start adding a third day. I, however, have started to lament running and only ran one of the three days I had planned. I feel somewhat bad about not having enough self control that I missed going on these runs. From past experience though, I have learned that beating myself up over my perceived shortcomings has negative effects. When you come up short (and you will) don’t spend too much time beating yourself up about it. It seems like most of us could benefit from cutting ourselves a little slack and just doubling down on our efforts moving forward. I have added a lot of new work to my plate and everything in life is two steps forward and one step back. Thus, I will rearrange my new schedule to better accommodate my goals and try again this week. Remember that we only truly lose when we stop trying.

From the very first time I started playing Magic, I wanted to win with my own deck and to show everyone just how smart I was. I wanted to beat them all at their own game and flaunt my dominance. I wanted this:

The Solution Deck List - Zvi Mowshowitz (Pro Tour Tokyo 2001)

The best and most popular deck in the format at the time was a hyper aggressive Gruul Aggro deck that took 4 of the top 8 spots at Pro Tour Tokyo. Zvi cracked the code and came up with the perfect counter for this deck, using what would otherwise have been very weak creatures with protection from red.

This was in a time before MTG Arena or even Magic Online. When information moved at a much slower pace and was, in general, a lot worse than it is today.

In more recent times, we have still seen examples of the worlds best deck builders “breaking” a format wide open. In this next case a format that had been around for months. This deck existed and no one had found it until Stanislav Cifka unleashed it on the unsuspecting participants of the Mythic Championship Qualifier last August.

Mythic Championship Deck List - Stanislav Cifka

Are you someone like myself that dreams of accomplishing this feat? Do you want to break a format, win a tournament and go down in the Magic history books as one of the greatest deck builders of all time?

Well here is the cold harsh reality, it’s probably not going to happen. Note that I didn’t say won’t happen, it just probably won’t. First of all, how good of a deck builder are you? I happen to be quite terrible at deck building. This is a skill that I am constantly trying to improve but simply is not my strong suit. It’s important to be honest with yourself about your skill set so that you can improve. I spent literal years of my life trying to play rogue strategies, hoping to catch the world by surprise. This isn’t to say you can’t have success with your own creations. I did manage to top 8 my first Grand Prix with a Golgari Death Cloud deck. However, if I would have played a number of other decks, I may have won that tournament, instead of being quickly dispatched in the quarter finals.

The next issue is the current time we live in. There are more people playing high level Magic than ever before. Expert deck builders are live streaming every creation they can come up with around the clock. Trying to find something that hasn’t been done is difficult, though again, not impossible as we saw Aaron Gertler recently discover Temur Clover and play it to a Dreakhack $100,000 tournament win.

This is coupled with the state of Standard we have been in for a while now. Cards have been pushed to the point that there are not viable other options. This last weekend’s tournaments are a great example of this. No matter how hard you tried to beat Omanth, the reality was that if you did not play an Omnath deck you were most likely going to lose. Let that sink in for a second, if you picked a deck without Omnath in it, you were close to 0% to win that tournament.

In my past articles, when I have specified that picking your deck is the most important part of winning, this is what I was trying to communicate. Could other decks make top 8 or steal a win if enough tournaments were played? Of course. And this is where players make the same mistake over and over. By fooling themselves into thinking they aren’t giving away huge percentage points by making a certain deck choice. This situation is not always as clear cut but it is always present. There are decks that have a clear advantage over the field and not playing them is often a mistake. For every “The Solution” deck there are thousands of failed attempts.

I had a call with a new member of our Patreon and this person was trying to make it to Mythic for the first time. They were stuck at Diamond 2 on the ladder and couldn’t seem to string enough wins together to make it. They were playing Mono Red, Mono Green, and Gruul. I explained to them that decks like 4c Omnath and Temur Adventures had an inherent power advantage over these aggressive strategies and encouraged them to try one. Within hours they had made it to Mythic. Playing a more powerful deck is like playing Magic on easy mode and the reverse is also true.

Obviously, I am overly simplifying things by saying “play a good deck”. But it’s the first step that many competitive Magic players don’t take. I also want to be clear that playing a winning decklist from last week’s tournaments is not often a winning strategy as everyone will adapt to them and that’s if there are even tournament results to draw from! Figuring out which lists are going to be good or bad for a given tournament is extremely difficult and even the best players in the world get it wrong often.

Here are some tips for picking a deck. Most of them center around being self aware and honest with your results. This is why those are both fundamentals that I try to hammer home in this series.

  • The first thing you want to do is look at the raw power of the decks available. Currently in Standard, Omnath and Temur Clover (and sometimes both) are decks that are simply more powerful than the options available. As of this writing, I am not sure that there is a deck that has a winning match up vs both of those decks. Thus you need to have a very good reason to not play one of them.
  • When you are trying out decks and specific cards, don’t make excuses for them. Often, you will hear players say things like “I made a mistake or else I would have won that match”. This could be true but your opponent is almost certainly also making mistakes. Thus, they might have beaten you more handily if they had played better. At the end of the day, if you are losing more than you are winning, this is a bad sign. Yet, I and many others have convinced ourselves that a deck is good despite not doing a lot of winning with it.
  • Lastly, you should be careful where you get information from in the first place. There is a nonstop amount of content being created. This again is why I emphasize how important it is to avoid “bad decks” and bad information. Many streamers, for instance, are as much entertainers as they are competitive players. They are brewing up new decks for entertainment value as much as they are trying to break the format. If someone has a history of producing results for themselves and others, you should be more likely to follow their advice. If however, you have tried a certain player or organization’s decks and found them left by the wayside, you may want to avoid that entity going forward.

Now that we have figured out how to focus on what is important and ignore the rest, how do we compete against the other players that are also on this level? Going back to last week’s tournaments, there were three camps you could be in. The first was the “Didn’t play Omnath” camp that played Magic with hard mode activated. The next was the massive “Played an Omnath deck” camp that had to rely on variance and playskill to get ahead. The third camp was “Recognized Omnath was busted AND figured out how to combat other Omnath decks”. This third camp was one step ahead of the curve and reaped the rewards.

SCG Tour Online Championship Qualifier #6

Standard 4-color Omnath Deck List - Julian Felix Flury (SCG Tour Online Championship Qualifier #6)

Julian went an impressive 6-1 in Omnath mirror matches finding a version of the deck with seven main deck counterspells that would stop their opponents key spells from ever resolving.

Going into this weekend’s CFB Clash event not a lot has changed with the banning of Uro. Omnath is still the best deck in the format. Clover is still the second best thing you can be doing and dominates creature based strategies. Counterspells are still good against Omnath and even better now that Uro is gone as a way to recrew value. You don’t need to reinvent the wheel. Aggro decks are still going to struggle and decks with counterspell based plans are going to thrive. Going into this weekend I highly recommend playing Omnath with a mirror plan or a control strategy like Dimir. If Clover decks stop being enough of the field, that’s when you can try going underneath the counterspell heavy decks with an aggro deck.

Until next time, keep it simple and have fun winning.

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