Playing the Right Deck

If you’ve ready any of my artciles you know I’m not a casual magic player. I don’t have an EDH deck, I’ve never played type 4 and I attend FNM because the shop down the street from me gives away $90 in store credit to first place and $30 to second place (for $5 entry). There are two things I’ve learned recently that I think have made me a better magic player and I want to explore the first one today: playing the right deck, or how I learned to put down the Vampires and love Jund.

In any given tournament that I enter I play to win the entire tournament. Top 8’ing a PTQ or finishing inside of the prizes is always nice, but really I play because I want that top slot. I can only assume that this goal is the same for any other serious tournament player – why else would we spend endless hours playtesting and theorizing? Despite this, many players are guilty of handicapping themselves before a tournament even starts, defaulting them to a position of somewhere less than first, solely based on their deck choice.

Now, this doesn’t only apply to that kid who is here for his first PTQ with his 5 color ally deck he beats all of his friends with at lunch. No, this goes much further, extending into decks that many players consider viable and are even willing to enter tournaments with. While these decks may seem quite powerful in a vacuum, they simply are often not capable of winning a tournament because it simply cannot beat the best deck in the room.

A brief aside; despite the fact that people are complaining about Jund’s dominance, you simply have to realize that there is always a best deck. In Standard it’s Jund, replacing the dominance of Faeries from last season; in Extended, we see Dark Depths/Thopter Combo as far and away the best in place of the Riptide Laboratory-fueled Mono Blue Faeries of a year ago. While these decks are not necessarily the most popular (though Jund certainly is), they will be piloted by the best players and be at the top tables all day long. Thus, if you realistically want to win a tournament, you need to be able to fight these decks; if you cannot, you’re playing for 2nd at best.

Take Vampires for example. Inherently, this is an extremely strong deck – both [/card]Vampire Nocturnus[/card] and Mind Sludge are pretty unfair, you never get color-screwed, and most of your other spells pack a pretty powerful punch. Consensus says that you crush everything, that you’re the deck that everyone mentions to be “the deck I least want to see in the top 8”…except for Jund. And that, my friends, is a huge exception – the fact that you simply can’t beat the best deck.

Maybe you’ve beaten Jund 2 of the last 3 times at your local FNM, but I would need a lot more evidence than just that to overturn the popular consensus. And yes, I realize that Vampires won a 5K at some point this Standard season, but Affinity and Merfolk have also won Extended PTQs – I’d rather not focus on corner cases. The fact is, Jund is the best deck – you simply cannot ignore the results – and when it is occupying at least 3 spots in the top 8 of a tournament (up to a whopping 6 at GP: KL), you’re participating in a losing venture by bringing a copy of Twilight to the table.

Vampires is not the only deck of this sort. Playing some sort of GB Rock variation in Extended, chock full of Sakura Tribe Elders and Garruk Wildspeakers that have no hope of interacting with a flying, indestructible 20/20 or endless stream of Thopter tokens, has no realistic shot at ever winning. Steve Sadin, Limited Information author for the mothership and GP: Columbus winner, was once quoted in a Kyle Sanchez article stating that “During a lot of these PTQs, usually while IDing into the Top 8, I would realize that my deck was actually incapable of winning the tournament because it wasn’t capable of beating the best, most prepared player(s) in the room.” And that is the key, right there – if your deck is simply not capable of beating the best that there is (and I assure you, the best players will be playing the best decks), then you are doing yourself no favors but presenting yourself an unwinnable situation.

Now, much of what I’ve said so far may seem rather obvious, so hopefully I can explain out a few more pieces of advice. Beyond playing decks that, as described above, cannot feasibly win tournaments, you should avoid playing decks that are simply inferior versions of others and decks that fold to the same kind of hate.

For the former, let’s look at decks such as Boss Naya and Bant (not the Mythic deck, something more like the Junk decks that Bucher and Juza played at worlds). Now, at face value, these decks have very little in common – Jund wants to Cascade, Naya features sleek Ranger and Stoneforge Mystic packages, and Junk decks want to run out Baneslayer Angels. But boiled down, these are all simply aggressive mid-range decks featuring efficient creatures and some removal or disruption. I know, Naya can pack the Cunning Sparksmage combo postboard and Bant can do crazy things on a turn 3 start, but these decks are all essentially trying to accomplish the same thing by similar means. So why would you play something that’s proven to be a lesser form than the best, especially when it’s a bad matchup for you? Honestly, the best I can come up with here is that people are sick of playing with Jund, which means their sick of winning, which I simply can’t comprehend..but I digress.

As for the latter piece of advice, we should first consider the Dark Depths deck, easily considered to be the top dog in Extended. However, the deck is susceptible to a fair amount of sideboard hate, presented by Zoo decks in the form of cards like Bant Charm and Damping Matrix. So if people are packing hosers like these, why would you ever consider playing Affinity, a weaker deck that falls prey to the same hate? Similarly, if a card like Night of Soul’s Betrayal suddenly became a big hit to combat Thopter Foundry, your Bitterblossoms and Vendilion Cliques should probably stay in your trade binder.

What I’m trying to get at through all of this, is that at a given point in time there should probably only be a few decks that you should even consider playing. Card issues aside, if your aim is to win the tournament, you should be playing the best or playing what seeks to beat the best. Zac Hill once said that you should pose two questions when approaching a format, asking yourself what is the most powerful thing you can be doing and what is the best way to stop that. Consider these words next time you’re heading off to a tourney, hopefully leaving your Vampire Hexmages in the board in favor of some Putrid Leeches, Hellspark Elementals, or even Spreading Seas.

3 thoughts on “Playing the Right Deck”

  1. hahaha, I think you should have picked a different vampire than hexmage to leave behind :) Also, I think there’s something to be said for playing a slightly weaker but similar deck (boss naya etc) when the deck is unknown, because when people haven’t tested vs it you will often be able to make up for the slight weakness. Obviously once the deck is out (nowish) it should be shelved though.

  2. i think what degenlolz says is pretty important…chapin emphasized the fact that his UW deck did so well at PT San Diego because players didn’t know what they had to play around. But again, once a list is out, you lose so much…

  3. To add to Fades point people tend to curb themselves into net decking because they feel that “if a pro played this deck it must be good” or “this deck list won a PTQ it has to be good” said deck lists might have been unknown at the time of the tournament and once the cat is out of the bag word spreads like wild fire….believe me if I won an online PTQ with Open the Vaults/ Time Sieve Combo word would spread and that deck would be Deader than dead within a week. While I agree that there are definitely best decks and you should stick with the percentages the element of surprise can sometimes be overwhelming to people that are simply just going through the motions, t2 leech, t3 thrinax, t4 bloodbraid into blightning.

    But obviously Jund is still the best deck in standard = )

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