While it may be true that I prefer brewing and playing my own decks a majority of the time, sometimes there will come a tournament where playing an established deck is going to be the best decision you can make. Maybe you just got zero practice in with the format or maybe you can't find the cards you need; if the time comes when you cannot brew for a tournament, you need to be ready to select your weapon of choice.
In some cases, this will be yet another brew. I know that for some tournaments in my past, I have brewed up my deck the night before to mixed results. But that is only going to be the case in completely untouched formats or formats in which no deck is actually good, which is a rarity these days.
I wanted to write about this, because (for those that do not know) with a full time job these days, tournament preparation has taken a step back from where it used to be for me. While I still prepare for tournaments, when it comes to Grand Prix, that time has been cut down some amount. So, for a tournament like Grand Prix San Diego, I will likely end up bringing one of the established decks of the format with me, sleeved up and ready to go But how do I go about making that choice?
Narrow the Field, But Rule Nothing Out
A big mistake I see a lot of players make when choosing a deck for a tournament, is to begin by eliminating decks that don't meet a specific requirement. If this requirement is format and metagame drive, great, but if this requirement is personal preference, think about broadening your horizons. For example, If I say “I do not want to play aggro in this format, because the field is all combo that outraces it,” that is fine, but if I said, “I don't want to play aggro because I don't like it,” we have a problem.
You need to be able to focus in on strengths of your own and metagame calls, without ruling things out completely, because everything can change. Imagine testing for two weeks for a Pro Tour and everyone knows aggro is unplayable. No one tests against it or tests with it. Two days before the tournament, some deck gets leaked online that shifts the entire format, making aggro viable again. It sucks if you can't play aggro because you never tested with it, but you can get over that; what is much worse is that you now know very little about your own deck's game plan against aggressive decks, because it had been so irrelevant up until that point.
If you think play skill for any particular archetype is an issue, feel free not to highlight it as a strength, but given two weeks of Magic Online time, and you probably won't be too bad with the deck in question. So, as I said, note strong archetypal preferences here, but no need to rule out bad ones.
At the end of this exercise, you want to have some number of decks (maybe 5, maybe 10, the number is not set in stone) that you have elected to highlight from among your total pool of decks. At this point, we need to begin getting more detailed with ourselves.
So, once the personal preference filter is employed, we get to slightly less biased sources of information. We have to assume that you want to win with whatever deck you are now choosing, which seems like hardly a stretch at all. Therefore, one thing we would be foolish not to include are the past results of said deck.
If you are talking about a deck like Caw-Blade or even Delver, the pedigree alone is probably strong enough to convince you of playing the deck, but what if I put Junk Reanimator in front of you tomorrow and asked if you wanted to play it this weekend? Would you know how the deck has performed over the past few weeks?
As it turns out, that deck happened to have won a Grand Prix, but even aside from that visible finish, how has the deck been doing in general? If you are about to choose this deck as your running mate for an entire tournament, a short background check seems like the least you can do. Know how your choice is positioned in the metagame and know why it is positioned there. If you like what you find, maybe that is the deck for you.
So now that we have gone your personal preferences and looked at what has been doing well, we need to look at what will be doing well. Analyzing a metagame is not something that every player will have the opportunity to do as it is a high time commitment task and there are plenty of us out there without the time to be focusing in on such things. Luckily for us, there is a plethora of Magic literature out there that does most of the work for you.
Now, searching and digging through Magic articles to piece together a bigger picture of the metagame is still work, so don't let me rob you of that, but it is a nice shortcut over the alternative of doing everything yourself. The downside is that if you think you are better at analyzing the metagame than whoever you are reading, you might be missing out on an advantage. For most of us though, that is not going to be the case.
I am sure there is some group of people out there that would prefer to come up with their own read of the metagame though. While explaining how to do so would be a near endless task, I can cover some of the things I look for personally, in a more simplistic approach for you guys. While I hardly expect this to be enough to get you from 0 to 60, it might help you get from 30 to 50 just fine.
The first thing I like to do is break down what all of the commonly played archetypes are. If a format has 4 viable control decks but no viable aggro decks, I am going to take note of that during this process. By doing this, you are mostly looking for patterns in things. If you notice there are no 3 or more color decks, figure out why. The same is true for any large distinguishing characteristic for decks. No deck in the format plays 6 or 7 drops: ie- the format must be relatively fast.
What I then like to do, is go through the format and denote popular cards. If you follow the MTG competitive scene loosely, you probably already have a list of these cards in mind, but doing this will help make sure none slip through the cracks. For example, when I go through the Standard database and see that 4 different decks are using Thragtusk, it gives me a ton of information to work with, the most important of which are:
1- This is a card I should highly consider running in my deck
2- This is a card I should be prepared to beat
If you know that 50% of the field is running Thragtusk, you are not going to be showing up to the tournament with Monored Burn that has no game plan against the Tusk. You are either avoiding Monored, or you are finding an out to the life gain on a stick that is an issue. This just helps you to fall into big traps of the format.
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On the other hand, it also allows you to turn inward on your own deck of choice. Does the deck you are considering play Thragtusk? If not, why? Should you consider adding Thragtusks to the deck? You have concluded that the card is good, so just make sure that the deck you are considering playing that also takes it into account is all.
While we may have done an archetype breakdown a little earlier, here is where I like to take that a step further. Rather than classifying things broadly, such as aggro or control, I like to look for recurring popular strategies that each of these decks utilizes. For example, while Reanimator may be a midrange deck, it is a very unique midrange deck when it comes to hating it out. So, if I begin to note Reanimator variants and I arrive at 3, that is much more telling than knowing there are 7 midrange decks viable in the format.
Again, you can also use this information to sway what you are playing. Imagine you were preparing for a Legacy event and were running something like Monoblue Merfolk. After exploring the format and realizing 90% of blue decks play Jace the Mind Sculptor and the package that works with him (fetchlands, tutors, Brainstorm, etc), maybe you arrive at a Merfolk list that also incorporates Jace into the deck somehow. Now you have innovated when you only sought to sort of play it safe.
But what I feel is the biggest strength from this area, is knowing what to avoid in terms of strategies. Lets say you are preparing for Standard and you come across the data that Reanimator is really popular right now. If you are able to investigate that and conclude that it is not the most popular based purely off of power level, we know we probably want to avoid it for our tournament. If the deck is popular, but weak to dedicated hate, we can assume people will be more prepared for the deck, so playing Reanimator might be a mistake.
Taking that a step further though, perhaps playing anything with a moderate level of graveyard interaction is going to be bad. My deck may not be reanimator, but I have Runchanter's Pike and a bunch of flashback spells. If I know that a ton of graveyard disruption is going to be present, I may consider tweaking my reliance on the graveyard or choosing a different deck altogether.
Stock or Stirred?
Once you have gone through and examined all of the moving pieces for whatever format you are going to be playing, you should arrive at a deck. You will have Second Thoughts of course, just like most people at most tournaments, but let us assume you remain unchanged and play the deck you have arrived at; you still have one more decision to make.
You need to decide whether the list you want to play should be played as-is, or whether it should be modified by your steady hands. In general, I would advise that without testing or a supreme confidence in your decision, leaving the deck as-is is going to be safest. Tinkering with a deck you do not know all that well can certainly set you further back that where you started. That said, sometimes tinkering is necessary. What if the metagame has shifted slightly and you need to prepare your deck to adapt to those changes?
If you have the resources, updating a deck will be better than leaving it as is, but as I said before, that takes a lot of confidence that your changes are indeed improvements. If you are uncertain, just play the deck as is and don't add even more odds against you
As I mentioned before, right now I am in this very position for Grand Prix San Diego. While it can be a bit unsettling to not know what I am playing just yet, these situations do come up and you need to know how to handle them as a player. Hopefully I manage to handle my situation just fine. If you are going to San Diego, come by and say hi, and as always, thanks for reading!
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