December again, another year almost at its end. Let's be honest, Magic is a little stagnant right now. We're nearly done with major tournaments until January and we were all getting a little bored of Standard anyway. Aether Revoltwill shortly cure us of our doldrums, but what do we do until then? For me, this time of year always feels like the perfect time to revisit the fundamentals. Today, in the spirit of things ending and beginning I want to talk about a fun one: how to know when it's time to move on from a deck you're playing and start fresh in a format.
A few months ago, I had one of my best-ever finishes while piloting Jund in Modern. Afterwards it often got awkward explaining to interested parties that I had since broken up with Jund. “What do you mean you broke up?” they'd ask, positing that “things had been going so well!” And sure, from the outside looking in, I understood why they would think that. We put on a good show, Jund and I, but the truth was I wasn't happy; I wasn't winning.
But how do you know when the time is right to leave your current deck behind? We're all players, but a new deck every week is not a route to a life full of happiness and Magic skill. It's only natural to become invested in the deck you're currently using, in many cases quite literally - decks are expensive! Further, as humans we tend to overvalue the nostalgia generated by continuing to play with a deck that we have piloted for a long time. All of this is to say that finding the right moments to switch decks is very difficult. Switching too often will hinder your development as a Magic player, but not switching when the time comes is an even less attractive option. Finding the right balance is a real challenge, and the only way to manage it is to always be on the lookout for signs that your current pilot/deck relationship is no longer working out.
The most important thing to be on the lookout for is a drop in your win rate. This is a tricky one to notice at times, as it's clouded by the ever-present specter of variance that looms over Magic. Often, I hear people tell me that their deck was fine for the tournament but they got very unlucky all day. This makes me cringe every time. I believe factoring your perception of variance into your decision making is virtually impossible to do objectively and thus more damaging than helpful. Instead, I like to use a time minimum to decouple variance from my perceptions. By refusing to make decisions for a set amount of time, I increase the sample size of data I have access to and decrease the impact of variance on my data. For win rate decreases, my rule of thumb is two major tournaments of data before I consider abandoning a deck.
The first thing to realize when you find your win rate dropping is that it's not always the deck's fault. Indeed, decks are inanimate objects, so let me assure you that it wasn't your deck that changed, it was you. And that's okay! But all too often we try and look at Magic as more of a science than an art – percentages, metagame shares, hypergeometric distributions and all that jazz. And in a science, there's no room for the individual. If our win rate drops, we immediately start looking for a reason. Maybe the metagame grew hostile or we lost the element of surprise. If we can't find a logical reason, we assume the drop must just be variance and often decide to soldier onward through the variance storm to the wins we know must be on the other side. But changes to our mental state can affect our win rate in ways just as tangible as logic and facts, and mandate switching decks just as strongly.
For me, the most common personal change that will make my win rate with a deck drop is simply growing bored of it. If Magic was the sort of game that played itself, you wouldn't be reading strategy articles and I certainly wouldn't be writing them. Growing bored of a deck means you are less interested in the turn to turn decisions the deck presents you with, and when you are not interested in the difficult problems in front of you you're bound to make mistakes. This is a problem that took me a long while to grasp. I assumed that it was a natural progression, that increased familiarity with a deck led to decisions that used to be challenging becoming trivial. The truth is Magic is a deep enough game that surface level decisions becoming trivial just opens your eyes to deeper decisions that will then fascinate you. When you find yourself constantly playing on autopilot and not particularly interested in most of your turns, it's time to find a new deck.
Or maybe you're not bored of your deck, per se, but you aren't exactly as interested as you were before. There's a new deck that's caught your eye. Maybe you saw some sweet brew while out with your deck on an FNM date, or maybe you went looking on one of those deck list websites you know you're not supposed to visit. Regardless, now you just can't get your mind off this new list. You used to scribble sideboard plans and new tech cards for your deck while at work, now you just sit there daydreaming about this new list's sick combo finish. You know your heart's not in this relationship anymore, but day after day and tournament after tournament you keep trucking on with your same old deck.
Don't do this! You will play better and learn more with the deck you truly want to be playing, so forget what everyone says about playing what you know. Follow your heart, and if the new list doesn't work out, your old deck won't hold it against you. Promise.
Sometimes though, it is the deck's fault. Metagames change, new cards get released – lots of things happen in Magic that can render a formerly great deck virtually unplayable. The scary thing is, just like in real relationships, these changes don't happen overnight. Things get worse slowly, incrementally. One week a 40-60 matchup will win a tournament and see a slight bump in play. The next a new card is released that turns one of our 70-30 matchups to 50-50. Like a lobster getting boiled in a pot, we never notice that anything's happened until one day on Twitter we see a name we respect calling our deck trash. How can we avoid this fate?
We're already on the watch for drops in our win rate, but often when our favored deck gets worse we fail to see that reflected in our win rate. Indeed, if we are truly interested and engaged in our deck we could find our win rate going up in these times! Ever hear the Magic truism “everyone thinks their deck has no bad matchups”? The reason for this is that dedicated pilots of an archetype have a skill advantage over the typical Magic player. As such, when they average out their experiences in each matchup, they will often find that they have come out ahead in every matchup. They wouldn't be able to duplicate these results against an equally skilled opponent, but this doesn't occur to them. Instead, they just fall even deeper in love with their deck and make it even harder for themselves to switch.
The only reliable way I know of to prevent this is to regularly test every matchup against skilled opposition. In larger formats, it can be very tempting once you've spent a session testing a matchup to assume you've mastered it and from then on neglect it in future testing. In the short term this is a fine strategy, but make sure you retest matchups every month or two to make sure you haven't missed any large changes to the dynamics. If finding skilled opposition willing to jam games with you is a problem (as it has been for me at many times in my Magic journey), minimize the impact of the skill differential by playing both sides of the matchup. In fact, it's good practice to do this regardless.
The problem with this method is that it can be psychologically challenging to pull the trigger on abandoning a deck you've seen success with based solely on playtest results. For some reason it is so easy to abandon testing as not real in some way, to assume that tournament Magic is fundamentally different, especially if thinking this way lets you play the deck you know and love. To fight this tendency, you must be disciplined. Play testing games like their tournament matches if that's what it takes to treat it seriously. Be proud of the work you put into testing and it will be much easier to make decisions based on the conclusions you reach.
Thanks for reading,