Day 1: With a still unknown metagame ahead of us, designing some midrange green deck to kick things off seems fine. I really like the power level of the Golgari and Orzhov stuff, so Junk feels like a good place to begin.
Day 3: Junk has been performing well but has an inherent lack of late game card advantage that has it falling off against control. I am going to try a more aggressive version of the deck to avoid late game situations.
Day 4: Aggro junk felt really good, but the mana concerned me a bit. I am going to try some of the standout cards like Sin Collector in other shells, like Esper aggro.
Day 5: While both five-color midrange decks had strong plays, the mana was not great in either. I am unsure if that is a product of the format or just of their more aggressive nature. I am going to try some more off-the-wall brews just to see if there is anything there.
Day 7: None of my wacky ideas panned out, so I think I am going to revisit Junk. The control decks in the group have gotten much better and it will be interesting to see how the matchups have changed. Magic Online lists are starting to emerge and are pretty much meeting our expectations of the metagame.
Day 8: Back to testing Esper Control, but with maindeck Precinct Captains and Lyev Skyknights to make the deck aggressive but still able to play things like Supreme Verdict. Obzedat, Ghost Council is the finisher of choice to complement the aggressive creatures.
Day 9: Attends the Pro Tour and gives LSV a momentum creating win from the 1-3 bracket...
Day 10: The team has shifted to preferring a more controlling version of Esper. While I am not entirely sure that is the best route, we can include some of the highlight aggressive cards in the sideboard which might be the best compromise. Some of the team is back on Junk or GB, so I am still doing some research for that deck as well.
Day 12: The Pro Tour is just a few days away and I am still uncertain as to which deck I will end up playing. Junk and Esper both have a lot of merit to them, and seem strong against our projected field.
Day 13: Gave a double strike deck a shot just to see if it was even viable. Needless to say, after my 10-game bout with it, I am sticking to either Esper or Junk.
Day 14: Decision day, and I am still uncertain as to which deck to choose, but if I had to give an edge to one deck or the other, Junk is slightly in the lead right now.
Throughout the course of that day, the deck which had the lead at any given point in time was seemingly random. I was completely undecided and would have been plenty happy flipping a coin and going about my merry way. Unfortunately, I am a human, a Magic player no less, so I knew that whichever decision I made now I would later regret or deem amazing, so I might as well put a little thought into it.
Obviously, every single time you look to choose between two different decks for a tournament, the reasons and circumstances are going to be different. It would not be very useful for someone to tell you, “when in doubt, choose the green deck!” Maybe green isn’t a color you feel comfortable with, or maybe it isn’t in the format. Telling you to choose CawBlade over Valakut might be extremely helpful in the short term, but what does it teach you going forward? Are you supposed to extrapolate from that that control is better than combo? Or that blue is better than red? The advice is too specific to be of use going long.
Today, I want to walk you through some of the things I look for when choosing between two decks, and specifically what I looked for this time. Testing for a Pro Tour is a lot different than a Grand Prix, so I tend to have some areas that I put extra emphasis on.
With that said, some context might be useful, so let's look at the two decks on trial.
Our Junk deck had a few different variations championed by a few different people. GerryT and I were closest in what we wanted out Junk deck to look like. Toward the end of our testing, I would say the list I was most likely to play would have only been a few cards off from the following shell, potentially with some more extreme sideboard changes:
And as for Esper, this was the list played by about 10 of the members on the team:
If you notice, there is a common thread between these two decks in white and black—more specifically, Sin Collector. I knew that whatever deck I was playing would have access to that card, as it was one of the more impressive cards across most matchups. This is ultimately what funneled me off of the green/black aggro deck and green/white tokens. While the mana would get a little worse with the addition of a third color, the power level and flexibility of the deck would increase significantly.
But here I was, staring down two solid lists, with some 16 hours to choose one and waiting until the morning would not do.
Do Your Thing the Best
First and foremost, I wanted whatever deck I was playing to be doing its “thing” better than any other deck could do it. Whether that was GW making tokens or Mono-Red killing by turn 4—didn’t matter so long as I was not being outclassed by some other deck doing a similar thing. This is one reason that a deck like Bant control quickly fell out of favor in our group. Sure, you had some powerful cards, but what were you doing better than Esper with their access to Sin Collector and Far // Away?
The SCG crew decided that the best thing Bant could be doing was playing those control cards while providing aggressive threats early on (Loxodon Smiter/Voice of Resurgence), so they certainly had a plan, but ultimately I felt the shell as a whole was still weaker.
Pro Tour preparation has a lot of things about it that make it different from testing for a Grand Prix. Naturally, testing for two or more formats means your time is divided among other things, but the biggest difference is that Pro Tours take place in undefined metagames. Whatever scraps you can piece together from a few Magic Online results and the one live tournament that happens the week before is about all of the data you have. Because of this, you often have to both design the metagame and then design a deck that can beat that metagame.
Normally, if the deck you designed is bad, so be it. You made a bad call, but that’s fine. If, however, the metagame that you designed or anticipated is wrong, no matter what deck you settle on, you have a higher chance of just being blown out round after round. Rather than packing the wrong type of hiking shoes, the environment for which you designed was incorrect and the path you wandered down was to an entirely different town than the one you thought. That can be a big issue.
Because a Pro Tour metagame has so little known about it, while you can be reasonably certain of a specific makeup, you can never be 100% sure. So, one thing I feel more comfortable with when going into a tournament of this nature is to have versatility on my side. Aggressive decks pull this off by being extremely proactive while control decks do this by having flexible answer cards as well as threats that tend to be more of the “Tap Out” variety.
Junk is reasonably proactive. It isn’t a mono-red deck or anything like that, but it is still deploying threats and playing the aggressor in most matchups. However, against aggressive decks, Junk very much needs to become the control deck to have a chance, at which point the few answers you do have get stretched extremely thin. This is where the versatility drops. The deck is somewhat proactive and somewhat reactive, but the wrong mix of either half leads to a poor game.
This is actually the downside to just about every Rock deck ever. Some decks, like Jund, are almost purely proactive and have enough card advantage behind them that drawing one dead card in a game is not the end. In a game with this Junk list though, drawing a dead Putrefy against control, even if other things are going well for you, could spell the end of the game for you as you have no way to recoup that lost card.
Esper on the other hand, while being a deck of mostly answers, has extremely versatile answers and powerful tap-out threats. In addition to all of that, it has multiple sources of card advantage to ensure you have gas going long. Dead Far // Away against control? Well a Jace activation will have you forgetting about that pretty quickly.
Individual Card Strength
If the last argument had not already swayed me toward Esper, this one certainly did. Junk had a good game plan. Lead out with a solid one-drop into resilient two-drop. Begin applying pressure before playing some disruptive 3-drop like Varolz, the Scar-Striped or Sin Collector and then eke out small advantages to close the game. But what happened when Junk didn’t get to execute its game plan?
What happens when you lead with a Lotleth Troll on turn 2 into Syncopate, or your board consists of no regenerators when a Supreme Verdict comes down? Here was my issue. Your plan A has crumbled and you need to claw back into this, but there are so few individual all-stars that randomly top-decking back into a game was tough. Occasionally a Varolz, the Scar-Striped would be a great peel or maybe a Desecration Demon out of nowhere, but look at this Esper list:
The deck is packed full of powerful stuff. Even when your card advantage is not winning you games, the power level of individual cards very well could be. Between the two decks I felt most comfortable with, Esper just had the better individual cards and that is a great thing to have in a wide open Pro Tour format.
Of course, in no way am I claiming that a deck built on synergy is a bad thing. Had we had some cool combo deck or tribal aggressive deck, I may have considered it, but Junk was both a deck that needs some amount of synergy and some amount of raw power, but it never takes first place in either area. I would rather play a strategy with a little more gamble in it if it means my good matchups are actually good matchups.
This Block format was also about powerful cards. In a format like Scars of Mirrodin, aggression was heavily rewarded due to all of the sweepers being so expensive. In that format, I would have valued aggressive synergy higher than raw card power. Of course, Hero of Bladehold somehow got to be in the same deck as 0-mana 1/1s, so the deck had everything going for it, but it easily could not have.
Try to isolate the things you find most valuable to a given format during testing and then should any doubt enter your mind in the 11th hour, rely on those attributes that you rate so high to help guide you. There will be a lot of chatter about deck x or y or what the local ringer is playing, but just remember the conclusions you came to during testing and stick to your guns. It’s a hell of a lot easier to win that way. Thanks for reading!