Decision Placement Theory: The High Variance MTG Deck Choice in Competitive Modern, by Theodore Southgate

Decision Placement Theory The High Variance MTG Deck Choice in Competitive Modern

For a High Level Magic: the Gathering Event, Would You Rather Play a Deck That Interacts with Your Opponent as Little as Possible, or as Much as Possible?

So, this week I have a slightly different topic in mind. It occurred to me after seeing a thought-provoking Tweet from Rich Hagon, following the success of Dimitriy Butakov with his Bogles deck at the MOCS last Sunday:

“The humility that Dimitriy Butakov shows in arriving at Bogles as his deck choice – a desire to play as little ‘Magic’ as possible against better players than him – is something that 99% of PT competitors should be thinking about, and AT LEAST 50% should act on.”

Immediately, this got me thinking about a similar comment made by Ken Yukuhiro following his success at PT Rivals of Ixalan with his Black/Red Hollow One list. Though the comment was, of course in Japanese, it essentially claimed that he came up with the deck and decided to run with it precisely because he wanted to play as little Magic as possible with the other people in that room. It’s an interesting theory to me, because never before have I seen Pros openly admitting that they have chosen linear decks purely because they know there are fewer play mistakes to be made.

I decided to look into it a little more, and what I found fascinated me. The concept is known among Pros as ‘decision placement theory’ and has been written about before, most notably by Brad Nelson in the past, and more recently by Jim Davis, on the SCG Premium website. Essentially, the idea is that in a wide-open format like Modern, where the ‘best deck’ is questionable and you know you can’t sideboard to beat everything, deck choice is going to matter a lot in any given tournament, and for a Pro looking to win big money, sometimes it’s better to take a deck like Hollow One or Bogles and hope to luck your way through than to try to go toe-to-toe with each other in midrange mirrors and risk losing your entire tournament to one fatal mistake.


Brad Nelson highlights that the concept of deck selection, particularly in Modern, falls under three categories:

“I make the tough decisions.”

This is the Reid Duke-style approach to a tournament, where you trust your skill more than the variance afforded by more degenerate strategies. Though the onus is on you to make sure you don’t make a mistake, you believe you are good enough not to.

“We both make the tough decisions.”

This is the in-between, the decks like Company and Death’s Shadow. If you expect your opponent to be less experienced than you, this is the best kind of deck to take, because you can force them into making bad decisions by making good ones of your own.

“You make the tough decisions.”

This is the Hollow One, the Bogles, the Grishoalbrand. Get in under them and win before they can stop you. This is the high variance strategy which relies heavily on luck and which will generally favour the very inexperienced by putting some free wins on a platter.

Generally, Pro players will gravitate towards the top two categories because they are capable of high calibre play which will put their destiny into their own hands and avoid some of the silver bullet cards which degenerate strategies can fall prey to. However, not all Pros subscribe to this, and in some cases they will choose to take the third option because they feel it is more beneficial to them based on the calibre of the opponents.


I discussed this idea with well-known SCG grinder, streamer and Legacy aficionado Joe Lossett, and he came up with a very interesting “coin flip” analogy which simplifies the theory. I’ll expand on it here:

Imagine you’re going to your first Modern Pro Tour. You’re the best player at your LGS and you know you lucked out a little at the RPTQ to get to where you are. You’re taking a Jund deck, because it’s what you’ve always played. On the morning of Day One, you wake up and Richard Garfield appears before you. He tells you that you are free to take your Jund deck with you and play it, but you’ll only have a 35% win rate against most of the field, because they are more experienced and skilled than you. Instead, he says, take this magical coin. You don’t have to play any Magic at all, you just have to flip it every round. A 50% chance in every match.

Would you take the coin?

Now, the decision isn’t easy. Naturally, you know that you’re not likely to do well given that it’s your first Pro Tour, especially given you have to do well in Limited in the early rounds. You’re relying on Modern to pull you through to Day 2. Reflecting on it, you think that Richard is right, and if you have to face up against some of the best players in the world with your midrange deck, you’re likely to make more play mistakes than they are. You probably won’t re-qualify. Maybe you will, if you get good matchups and some timely topdecks, but overall you will have less than a 50% chance of winning. If you take the coin, you’ll have a higher chance of winning right now, possibly even cashing, and coming back to the Pro Tour next time.

This is, of course, a grossly oversimplified example, as it won’t always be 50% and there are other factors involved even with the highest variance decks, but the basic principle behind it is key. A lot of people would take the coin, hope to stay on the train, hope to cash, instead of taking the losses with their own deck. In fact, Joe said that under some circumstances he would be tempted to take the coin, and I would have to agree that I would too. That is essentially what these players are deciding; do they try to win this tournament, right here right now, or do they take the hits and learn from the losses in order to come back next time better and stronger with a more skill-intensive decklist?

Now, of course, for Pros this decision is almost always based on how they perceive their own skill against the competition they are facing, as well as how much it means to them to win any given tournament. Reid Duke, for example, took Abzan to PT RIX despite everyone telling him it was utterly unplayable, purely because he trusted his own instincts and experience with the deck despite its position in the meta, and it paid off for him in a big way. He took the traditional route.

Some people, though, were not in a position to trust their play skill – Butakov and Yukuhiro, for example – because they didn’t think their skill level was high enough to compete in the pool of players at such prestigious tournaments. Therefore, because they wanted to win the particular tournaments they were playing in more than they wanted to improve their play in the current meta, they chose to roll the dice. Note that Dimitriy Butakov has won the MOCS once before and has over 33,000 Constructed matches on MTGO, and Yukuhiro is an established Japanese pro, part of team Musashi, who has Top 8’ed more than one PT in the recent past, but despite these impressive accomplishments, neither chose to test themselves with a midrange or control strategy, because they knew what was at stake, and decided they were better off with something more linear.

For someone attending their first ever PT, decision placement theory is a serious consideration. It’s no easy feat to get onto the train, and once you’re there, you want to stay. There is definitely something to be said for experience, and nothing can compare to hundreds of reps with the same deck, but losing is tough, and even though you are improving every game by learning why you’re losing and which aspects of your play you need to work on, it doesn’t feel good at the time. It’s not to say that you definitely can’t win with your own, more complicated deck – after all, again taking from PT RIX, French player Jean-Emmanuel Depraz managed to Top 8 his first ever Pro Tour with Traverse Shadow, which is by no means an easy deck to play, based entirely on his knowledge of how the interactions work, and tiny advantages he could make for himself. There was a very clever play he made on feature camera in his quarterfinal to pass a Death’s Shadow under an Ensnaring Bridge, which I think many players, even Pros who haven’t played Shadow very much, would have missed.

For the purpose of research for this article, spoke with Team Axion members David Calf and George Channing about decision placement theory, both of whom have played at the Pro Tour and have been in the above position of deciding which deck to take. Albeit they were playing Standard on each occasion, which has less scope for this kind of degeneracy, the theory definitely still applies. It’s much easier to win with Hazoret Aggro than Grixis Energy.

David said that he could definitely see the advantages of this theory, especially if there was a lot on the line – although he thought it was better to run a deck you are familiar with, he agreed there is definitely a time and a place for the linear strategies if a certain tournament really means a lot to you. He did cap off our conversation by saying that although in most situations he would take his own deck, Grixis Death’s Shadow, because of his experience and his familiarity with it, if you told him that there was a $1000 prize for FNM tomorrow and he had to play against the top 25 in the world, it wouldn’t be an easy decision.

George, on the other hand, while agreeing that this can be a viable strategy, claimed that you actually need a base amount of meta knowledge and skill to even make such a decision in the first place, so from the get-go you would be better off just running with what you know and trying to improve. In his words, “Losing to people who are better than you is a great way to improve and learn. Casting bogles is not.” You shouldn’t just shrug and surrender to a high variance strategy because you feel outgunned, you should try to get better every time you play so that one day, you’ll feel comfortable enough with your own list that you won’t need to consider this theory at all.

So, if you are looking for the long-term improvement plan, most people who have been in that position seem to agree that in most situations it’s better to accept you won’t do too well to begin with (although you can defy expectations, as shown by Depraz), and just to play your own deck and try to better yourself as a player. The ‘linear strategy’ has a time and a place, but only for that particular tournament in that particular instance – for Yukuhiro, it was the first Modern PT in two years, so he was unsure how everything would shake out and preferred to brew up his own list and rely on variance. For Butakov, he was aware of the insular meta of the MOCS and the decks he was likely to come up against, and took a meta call which resulted in him relying on variance to an extent, but it was also an informed decision.

During our discussion, Joe made another important point, which I haven’t yet delved into. We have been operating on the assumption that 50% is the variance deck chance, however, that won’t always be the case. Ken Yukuhiro came up with the Hollow One list, and if he ran the numbers on it and found that it was a 60% flip during testing, that is a lot more tempting and would have spoken volumes not only about his deckbuilding skill but about his decision to run with it in the tournament. Conversely, some linear strategies do have some decision-making to them, such as Grishoalbrand; and the occasional player mistake, particularly when you don’t have much experience with it, or a sideboard hoser from your opponent could add up to decrease it to only a 40% coin chance, which is only marginally better than what you might have had anyway. In that case, is it really even worth it at the best of times?

Of course, bear in mind that in our above scenario, if you don’t take Garfield’s mystical offer and choose to forge ahead with your Jund deck, even if you fulfil the 35% prophecy, maybe you’ll learn enough from your losses that next time, whenever that may be, you’ll make it to 40%. Then the time after that, perhaps you’ve improved enough to be at 45%. The important thing to remember is that Butakov and Yukuhiro are already very experienced and strategically minded Magic players, and they, along with many others who choose to take these decks from time to time, are aware of many factors including the metagame, the likely deck choices of other teams, their Limited potential, and crucially, tons and tons of testing, which are helping to make their decision. If you want to be as good as they are, or eventually become an LSV or a Reid or a Finkel, you have to learn the skills first, acquire the game knowledge and ability to play a different style, and then choose when to apply this theory to your best advantage.

Hagon’s sage advice was followed up by a second Tweet not long after:

“If you were playing GP Madrid, and had a non-Pro team, a set of Legacy Miracles, Modern Grixis Control, and WU Approach would likely give you less chance of winning than Legacy Charbelcher, Modern Bogles, and Standard Hollow One vs a Pro team.”

Yes, Rich, this may be true. In fact, it almost certainly is true. However, if you never try to learn, and don’t push forward to achieve the best you can be with your own decks, the ones you love to play with and have stories about every card, then you’ll never give yourself the chance to become one of those fearsome players to whom you aspire.

I hope this has been an interesting insight into the theory, and I look forward to seeing your comments below!

Thanks for reading,

Kerry Meyerhoff

Decision Placement Theory: The High Variance MTG Deck Choice in Competitive Modern, by Kerry Meyerhoff
For a high level Magic: the Gathering event, would you rather play a deck that interacts with your opponent as little as possible, or as much as possible? 

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