Knowing Things #2: Knowing Your Deck
In my last article, I discussed the importance of self-confidence and knowing yourself. This included knowing your playstyle, and not letting mistakes, small or large, affect your play moving forward. I hope at least some of you found those tips helpful. Being confident is good, but in Magic: the Gathering (MTG), that’s only part of the preparation. The other part is making sure you know your deck well enough to make the right decisions in-game, based on the information you have. That’s what I’d like to discuss this week: the importance of knowing your deck.
I’ve had several discussions with people recently about which deck they should play in a given tournament. Those discussions, often on the day of that tournament, fall into one of two categories. Some people will ask about changing a few cards in the deck they’ve played for years, simply because they feel like they need to make a change. Often this is because they feel certain cards are better positioned than the ones they have been playing. The other group are people with a new deck they just built that they want to try, as opposed to the deck they’ve been playing for months or even a few years. My answer is always the same: play the deck/strategy you know better.
For those of you who don’t know me, I primarily play Modern. I enjoy Legacy, and play it when I can, but Modern is far and away my favorite format to play. Upon the release of Ixalan back in September, I decided to try my hand in Standard. Coming from Modern, where the card pool and number of different decks are significantly more diverse, I figured Standard would be simple to learn, and subsequently win. I had watched a few recent Pro Tours, as well as US Nationals. Because of its results, I decided to build Temur Energy, a deck which seemed really straightforward, as well as one that dominated the above tournaments.
After sleeving it up, I played it at a local FNM-level event, and promptly got thrashed by my opponents. Slightly annoyed and confused, I went home, watched some more coverage, and brought it out the next week, with similar results. I was very confused. I was getting similar hands, and playing similar matchups to the guys I had seen on the Pro Tour. What was going on? Why couldn’t I handle these matchups as soundly as they did?
I’ve seen a lot of people do what I talked about above. They go out and buy what they believe the best deck in Standard, Modern, or Legacy. They play a few events, or perhaps just a few rounds, with less than ideal results. Then they storm off in a huff. They sell the deck because they didn’t win right away. Guess what? The Pro Tour winners don’t get those results right away either.
There’s a reason most successful Pro Tour players are part of a team: it takes weeks of testing to come up with a list of 75 cards that any given player is happy with. Every single card is in those lists for a reason. Someone like myself, who just wants to play a good deck in Standard to spike a win here and there, won’t necessarily understand the reasoning behind the different card choices that were made, and thus won’t be able to pilot the deck as effectively or efficiently as the people who built it in the first place.
This is one of the reasons I prefer Modern and Legacy to Standard. As non-rotating formats, Modern and Legacy allow a player to hone his or her deck over several years. This in turn rewards them by allowing them to wiggle their way out of losing scenarios more often than someone who just picked up the deck. I’ve been playing versions of Jeskai Tempo and Control since the spring of 2013 (almost 5 years ago). I have played several different iterations of the deck. I’ve changed creatures, counterspells, removal spells, and gone through probably a hundred different sideboard iterations as new cards got printed. But I stuck with the same deck, and that has rewarded me.
Stick with It
My first piece of advice is to choose a deck you enjoy playing. That sounds like a no-brainer, but a lot of people start playing a deck just because it’s the “best deck” in a format (most often Standard). For those of you just making the plunge into a new format, my next article will focus on how to choose a deck you enjoy.
Once you have chosen a deck, stick with it for as long as you enjoy playing it. For most of us, Magic is first and foremost a game. Don’t expect to win every match and tournament, and don’t expect to turn a profit just by playing. Most of us play simply because we enjoy it. Even most of the professionals will tell you to stick with the same deck rather than switch from week to week.
Don’t stop playing a deck just because you had a few bad results. There is so much variance in Magic that those could have easily been wins if you had drawn different cards. In my experience, one of the most rewarding things about Magic has been playing my Modern deck, honing the list, and figuring out all the different tricks I can use to get out of certain situations. In the words of Magic Pro and 2008 Team Worlds winner Sam Black, “I play Magic to learn rather than to win. Winning is incidental with enough learning.” If you stick with it, and make the right adjustments, eventually you’ll see yourself at top of the standings, even if it’s just at a local event.
Once you get 20-30 matches in with a deck, you start to get a feel for how to play it. From there, you can start honing the list as you realise certain cards are better or worse, and what changes you need to make in the sideboard. This tweaking can take a few months or years, depending on how often you play and how committed you are to making the deck and yourself better. The result, however, will be a deck and mindset that you can take to any tournament and play with full confidence.
The Learning Experience
So why was I not doing well playing Standard, even though I had one of, if not the, best deck in the format? For the same reason I didn’t play well with other decks in Modern when Jeskai variants fell down to tier 1.5 or tier 2. I hadn’t taken the time to learn the deck adequately. Making mistakes is part of learning. The important thing is to not make the same mistake twice. That’s a lot harder than it sounds, but sometimes it’s obvious. Let’s take a look at an example from my early days playing Modern Jeskai.
Back when I first started learning to play Jeskai in Modern, I played at an FNM against a Kiki-Jiki, Mirror Breaker Splinter Twin deck. My opponent had a Kiki-Jiki on the field, and played Restoration Angel. These were the cards he needed to win, and I knew it. In my haste (pun intended) to answer his threat, I cast a Path to Exile targeting his Kiki-Jiki. The problem? He activated Kiki-Jiki in response, and killed me anyway.
As someone new to Modern, I lost the match, but got crucial pointers on how to play my deck. The first was how the stack worked. The fact that activated abilities can be used at instant speed is something I had never noticed. The second was, for the most part, to wait until the last minute to break up a combo. I was “trigger happy”, and wanted to prevent my opponent from winning as soon as possible. Little did I know, the longer I waited, the better my chance of success would be. I lost the match, but those lessons have stuck with me, and I haven’t made that mistake since.
I’ve made a lot of generalizations so far about formats and playstyles. However, that’s not much help without examples to back them up. So let’s take a look at some specific instances where knowing your deck thoroughly can put you in an advantageous position.
Taking a Mulligan
Knowing your deck through and through can reward you as soon as you shuffle up and draw your opening hand. For most decks, about 10-15% of opening hands are mulligan’ed immediately (e.g. no lands, all lands). Players automatically keep another 30-40% of possible opening hand (e.g. two or three lands, four or five spells). Whether to keep the remaining 45-55% of possible hands comes down to how well you know your deck.
Can you play a game of Magic on only one or two lands? How high is your mana curve? If you’re a Combo deck, how soon can you combo off and win? If you’re a Control deck, do you have enough removal and/or counter magic to survive the early turns if you’re playing against an aggressive deck? The only way to answer a lot of these questions is to try awkward hands in testing or a low-stakes tournament (e.g. FNM), see how it works out, and keep statistics.
I see a lot of questions posted on forums along the lines of “What should I do if I face X scenario?” or “Should I play (insert card name here) in a particular deck?” There are so many little details that go into the answer that I’m going to need more specifics. You can get all the advice you want from others. However, the only way to really learn a deck is to play some games with it. You can see what works and what doesn’t, and make changes accordingly.
That especially goes for mulligans. Want to see if you can play on one land? Try it a few times and see if it works. Depending on the deck you’re playing against, there are particular hands you can and cannot keep. The only way to know is to try different set ups and see if they work. Being able to immediately identify whether to keep or mulligan an opening hand is major indicator that you know the deck well and are comfortable with it.
Setting Up and Sequencing
Magic is a lot like chess. In order to be good, you can’t just focus on the current turn. You have to look ahead and set up your game plan for the next few turns. This is especially important if you are already facing a problematic situation.
There have been several instances in matches where I’ve needed a particular card to get me out of a situation. Often it’s something as simple as a Lightning Bolt or Path to Exile. However, if I tap incorrectly, it won’t matter what card I draw if I don’t have the lands to cast it. This isn’t as prevalent a problem later in the game, when both players have five or more lands. In the early game, it can matter quite a bit.
This really matters with a card like Serum Visions. As a simple example, let’s say it’s your turn three on the play. You already have a Steam Vents and a Hallowed Fountain on the battlefield. Your only land in hand is a Celestial Colonnade. If you want to set up the next few turns with Serum Visions, which land do you use to cast it? Most of that depends on whether you want to use white for Path to Exile or red for Lighting Bolt. Whichever colour you need, tap the land that DOESN’T produce that colour.
You may have noticed that I decided to cast Serum Visions BEFORE playing Celestial Colonnade. Why? Because with so many lands that enter the battlefield untapped, there is a chance that I find one of them when I draw from Serum Visions. This would allow me to play that land untapped, and leave up two blue sources to be able to cast a card like Logic Knot on my opponent’s turn. And if it taps for red or white, that would potentially allow me to leave up a red and white source, which I wanted to do from the beginning.
Improving Your Play
Once become comfortable with a deck, you can start learning how to deal with some of the more complex situations. It’s hard to play your best game of Magic no matter what, but that becomes nearly impossible when you’re still learning the deck. As an example, if you play search effects like Chord of Calling, it can be difficult to know what to search for if you don’t know the whole deck. However, once you know your deck completely, you can assess problematic situations more accurately. This, in turn, allows you to use your resources to answer opposing threats more efficiently, resulting in a more advantageous position.
One of my favorite ways to improve my game play is to discuss situations that have come up with other people. There is very rarely one correct line of play for any given situation. Discussing those situations with other players allows access to other lines of thinking, and improve my own sequencing. So many times I’ve been discussing a play, and someone will say something like, “You want to play this card, and leave this mana up in case of this.” And I never would have considered that. It’s important to pick up new ideas and ways of thinking from anywhere. That’s the only way to keep improving.
The last thing I want to talk about looks at the other side of learning a deck thoroughly. I’ve heard a lot of people say, “I’m looking for a new deck for the upcoming GP, because I don’t think my deck is very well positioned. What should I play?” And my answer is always the same: Play what you know. This goes for people who want to change their whole list, as well as those who want to change a few cards. There are several reasons people want to do this.
The first, as I mentioned, is because they think their deck isn’t good against the popular decks. And to a certain extent, that may be true. But a deck is only as good as its pilot. In my mind, a tier 2 deck in the hands of someone who has played it consistently for a few years is highly favored in a match against a tier 1 deck whose pilot just started playing it a month ago. Stick with a deck, get really good with it, and surprise some people at your next FNM, PPTQ, or IQ.
The second reason I see people make changes is to combat specific threats they expect to see at a particular tournament. While this is more understandable, I would advise against these changes unless they’ve been tested in previous, smaller events. The reason for this is twofold. First, especially in a larger tournament, it is impossible to figure out exactly which decks you’ll be playing against. This makes inclusions to combat a specific strategy virtually pointless. Second, last minute inclusions will often not be used as effectively as they would if the pilot had already had practice with them. You’ve been playing your list for a reason. That reason most likely hasn’t changed. Stick with it and trust your skills.
Learning is one of the most important aspects of MTG as well as life in general. New cards are constantly being printed, and people are always trying to build new decks. Sticking with one deck is the most reliable way to attain consistent results. If you know your deck, you can more easily assess various situations, resulting in more consistent victories. Furthermore, honing and tweaking a deck can be just as fun as actually playing with it.
Hope you all enjoyed this article. Tune in next time as I wrap up my “Knowing Things” series with “Knowing Things #3: Knowing the Format”. Let me know what you think in the comments!
Thanks for reading,