Wisdom Fae Under the Bridge – A Magic: The Gathering Guide to Deck Choice for PPTQs
“Learning carries within itself certain dangers because out of necessity one has to learn from one’s enemies.” – Leon Trotsky
This article has taken a while to write, because I changed my mind about to handle the topic a couple of times. What I am going to attempt to do is write a guide for deck choice in Standard, based on three variables: player skill, available time, and desired outcome.
Ideally this guide will be directly applicable to Standard as it stands in the next month or so, after which things will change and the advice will be a bit less useful. That said, the general principles will remain the same. Additionally, I am not convinced that this is a format which really pushes decks out of “position”, Abzan Aggro being a perfect case in point. The deck struggles against Four-Colour Rally, Mono-Green or R/G Ramp, and Gerry Thompson’s Dark Jeskai list, yet it remains the most represented deck on Magic online by more than the total of the next two decks combined.
The Chilled Out, Not Especially Invested Player
I’ve started with these players because they’re not really covered well by the model I am going to use, and this ought to be explained. What it comes down to is that these players have the least restrictions on them in terms of expectations, by virtue of their lack of investment. Essentially, if you’re not too concerned about what happens then you can play anything you like, and you can probably even find a list that’s done reasonably well doing exactly what you to do.
Are you into beating people down with little red men? Atarka Red won the StarCityGames event this weekend. If making massive monsters is more up your street, then maybe you could play the Mono-Green Ramp deck that finished 2nd. If it’s control you want, then Gerry Thompson’s Dark Jeskai will be a good call. Combo? Then Four-Colour Rally is a great call. Removal spells and Rhinos? Abzan Aggro. Or you could build something of your own.
What it comes down to is if your reason for playing is first and foremost to have a good time, then you’ll know, better than any writer, the sort of thing you like doing. This format even has a wide range of different archtypes, so it’s not like you’re going to be faced with a choice of playing something you don’t like and winning, or playing what you like and getting crushed.
By “weak” I mean newer players – people who haven’t played in months and people who are still learning. I don’t mean inherently and inescapably bad, just rusty, inexperienced or underdeveloped. These players might generally post scores in the bottom 25% of the tournament.
It’s probably a good idea for players in this position to rule out decks with more than three colours at this stage, because the mana base for these decks is complicated. It is fairly easy to either end up with a land coming into play tapped when you need it untapped, or simply to end up not having all of the required colours. I’d also advise against playing Esper Dragons because this deck requires you to be quite proficient in matching your answers to your opponent’s threats (and knowing what threats to expect), and will often punish you for failing to do this well.
Often people advise players of this level to play decks like Atarka Red, as this will give them the best chance of sometimes beating people with good draws (which is part of people’s ridiculous disdain for red decks, but that’s for another day…). There is something to be said for this, as it is probably the best way to generate “good days” in terms of games won, but the problem is that they might not learn much in doing this. Ultimately, that’s going to be more worthwhile than the difference between 2-4, 3-3, or the odd 4-2, and the minimal prizes that come with this.
I would advise players in this position to play a deck like Red-Black Dragons, Mardu Midrange, or Esper Tokens if they have a little bit of time to play (such as an evening the week before). These decks aren’t especially difficult, and will create more interesting game states, which allow for a greater level of opportunity to learn.
If they had quite a bit of time to prepare (two evenings the week before) and someone better than themselves who was willing to coach them a bit, then I might say Abzan Aggro. This deck also creates interesting boards but also has a lot of opportunity to learn in terms of tempo and mulligans, while also retaining some of the “good draws, good days” principle of red decks.
Solid Player Who Doesn’t Think They’re Good Enough to Play Either Islands, or Mirrors With Good Players
These are often the players who remember being pretty bad not long ago. They are not entirely convinced that they shouldn’t still be clutching their Mountains, let alone sleeving up the hated Islands. In my experience, many players like this are scared to play the best deck because they don’t think they can beat the good players – experienced players who they likely don’t have much experience playing with or talking to, resulting in an inflated idea of what these guys can do.
This is the sort of player who will Top 8 PPTQs pretty regularly, has maybe won a couple, maybe even made the Top 8 of an old PTQ or two. Generally they will have done so with a deck that has polar matchups, and they’ll stick to that sort of strategy because it’s been good for them in the past. The Ramp Decks are a good choice for this sort of player, being the exact sort of polar deck I just described
If they have a decent bit of time to test (two evenings), perhaps Four-Colour Rally is a good choice. This deck also has polar matchups, but it’s also better against the weaker players because of its complexity. The Midrange decks like Abzan, Mardu, and Esper Tokens are also a decent choice with an evening or so of testing. Ultimately at some point it will be required to learn to play control, though, and seeking out a good player who will teach you is a good idea, although more of a long-term prospect.
In terms of expectations, a player like this is more likely to get results doing “the thing” they’ve always done (e.g. sticking to their skillset), but over the long term it will pay to learn how to play a wider range of decks.
Aspiring Good Player
These are the guys who know the best players, get invited to draft but generally go 1-2, will get a deck list if they ask and aren’t timid about doing so. They’re proficient with a pretty wide range of decks, win tournaments a fair bit, but in all likelihood haven’t been on a Pro Tour. They’ll definitely be going to PPTQs with the intention of winning, and sometimes they’ll win one.
The main thing about these guys is they play a fair bit, so they’ll have experience with whatever they’re taking to the event. This is a massive advantage, and it’s quite hard to articulate how important this is. I’m painfully aware of how out of practice I am coming into this weekend’s events with only 60 or so games under my belt since rotation, only 25 with the deck I’m looking to play.
With that in mind, it’s hard to say what these players ought to be doing because the correct thing is whatever they’ve already been doing, e.g. playing one of the decks I’ve already mentioned, all of which are pretty good. There’s nothing so far which has really sang out to me as being especially outstanding. This is one of the most diverse Standard formats I have played in ages, Siege Rhino aside, and I don’t really see why people have complained so much about it beyond the tiresome nature of having to shuffle all the time because of fetches.
In all likelihood, these guys will be playing Rally, or Dark Jeskai, and they’re both decent choices in my eyes. It might also be correct for these players to play a deck that beats both of these, as they will be the choice of many players on this tier and the next. With that in mind, Atarka Red is probably an excellent choice for winning events for this tier.
These are guys who have a lot of hours of Magic under their belt, and have had a bunch of success in the past. These are players who fully expect to win a PPTQ over the season, and consider it a failure if they attend and don’t win.
These players have a big advantage over most opponents, and should try to make the game about making decisions as much as possible, as they will make fewer bad ones over time than most opponents. To me it seems pretty foolish to play variable decks in PPTQs if you’re one of the better players in the country, because you’re opting out of your edge in exchange for “better positioning”, which I thought was dubious reality in the old system.
Because people don’t choose decks using the same metrics, in the PPTQ system the nature of the average opponent has changed meaningfully. There are more people in the first category discussed present, for instance, because it’s a local event, and they’ll not be too concerned about what level you’re on. I really like counter spells and universal removal these days.
The Rally deck is pretty complicated, so if they haven’t put the time in, it’s pretty reasonable for them not to bother with this one because it will tie their success to getting triggers and sequencing right, rather than the strong fundamentals which they have likely built up over a number of years. Plus, the mirror is likely to be pretty horrific if one isn’t familiar with it. All of these factors make this a non-contender in my eyes unless you’re familiar, because it leaves too much up to critical turns, if the goal is to win the event, and only to win the event.
I’d be reluctant to play the midrange decks with Rally being popular and powerful, though, as it’s not unreasonable to expect to see one in the elimination rounds. I’ve not played with midrange against Rally, but it seems like these are exactly the sorts of deck which Rally is beating all day due to their slow clocks, clunky creatures, awkward removal, and lack of effective disruption.
I do like this Jeskai list, though…
Dark Jeskai (Gerry Thompson)
1 Chandra, Flamecaller
1 Kalitas, Traitor of Ghet
1 Linvala, the Preserver
3 Radiant Flames
1 Infinite Obliteration
1 Utter End
… And that’s very close to what I’ll be running this weekend, unless I panic about rust and play Atarka Red, but I can’t see that happening.
Community Question: In your personal opinion, what is the best deck to play at the PPTQs right now and why?
That’s it for this week, please let me know what you think are the best deck choices to take to the PPTQs right now in the comments below, and best of luck in whatever events you’re playing!
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