A couple of days ago, a text by (@CyrusCGmtg) began circulating that talked about the difficulty of combo decks in Magic. I agree with some of the sentiment, but also disagree with some of it, and it prompted me to write this article.
When you’re talking about deck difficulty in Magic, most people take it very personally. It becomes a matter of pride, not a matter of practicality. It feels good to play (and to win) with a deck that is considered hard because you appear more intelligent or skilled. It feels “cheap” to win with a deck that’s considered easy, because anyone could have won with it—it’s more like the deck won instead of the player.
I do not like this way of thinking. Magic is a hard game, and every deck is hard to play perfectly. You’re very unlikely to win a tournament if you aren’t playing very well, regardless of what deck you have—there are always opportunities to mess up, and it’s very silly to attack or demean people for playing what they want to play, whatever the reason.
Cyrus ends the text by saying that it doesn’t matter if the decks are easy or not. That’s the point with which I disagree most. It’s actually very useful—and important—to properly identify which decks are easy to play and which decks are hard to play because, while he is correct that you do not get bonus points for playing a hard deck, you do lose points for playing a deck that is too hard. A deck being hard should never be a reason for you to play it, but a deck being easy absolutely should, and if you can’t properly identify when a deck is easy and when a deck is hard, then you’re missing out.
Whenever I start playing a new game, I like to research it. When I started playing Diablo 3, the first phrase I Googled was “most beginner-friendly class.” It turns out that it was the Witch Doctor. So I made a Witch Doctor, and I had a lot of fun because it wasn’t very complex to play. Then, once I learned more, I branched out to different classes. This doesn’t mean that the Witch Doctor is just for beginners—there are incredible players who play the Witch Doctor at a very high level to great success. But in this spot, knowing that it was an easier class to play was very useful for me. Perhaps if I had picked a hard class I would have simply not enjoyed the game at all.
The same is true for Magic. People have different levels of experience, and it’s important to know which decks you should go for and which ones you should wait on. It’s not demeaning. It’s just facing reality.
As a professional player for almost fifteen years, who has played almost every type of deck, I still find myself considering difficulty in my deck selection. For example, not that long ago, I was going to play a Legacy tournament, and I played a couple of games with Storm. I liked the deck, but I simply didn’t think that given my limited time to prepare I’d be able to play it to a point where I considered my performance with it adequate. So I didn’t play it. That’s not shameful—I was proud that I managed to recognize my weaknesses and limitations, and work around them.
There are many reasons why even an experienced player wants to consider deck difficulty. Sometimes, you spend a month testing a deck, and then you decide that you’re not going to play it and you have to choose something else. It’s useful, then, to know which deck you can just pick up and which ones would be too hard to play with almost no practice. Maybe you’re playing a double-GP and you bomb out of the first one, and you find yourself having to play a Standard tournament when you came for the Legacy one. Maybe you decide to go to a tournament on a whim with a format you never play.
Knowing deck difficulty is also important to understand how representative your testing is. If I’m testing for a big tournament and I am playing against a deck that’s very easy to play, then I can expect the results of my testing to be representative of the results in the actual tournament. If I’m playing against a deck that is hard to play and my playtest opponent is not experienced or skilled with the deck, then I might be skewing my results, because people in the tournament probably will be skilled with that deck if they chose to play it. The gist is that if you playtest against your little brother on White Weenie, you’re more likely to have a representative result than if you playtest against your little brother on KCI (unless your little brother is Corey Baumeister, I guess).
“But how do I know if a deck is hard or not? Maybe the deck is very hard and it just appears easy to me because I’m not seeing the parts where I mess up.”
Generally speaking, there are a lot of factors that can make a deck hard to play properly. Here are some of them:
Decks that present multiple options in the same turn
If a deck has multiple cards it can play in the same turn, then that increases dramatically the number of ways you can make a mistake. Take, for example, a Legacy Delver deck—you can play a Delver or a Brainstorm turn 1, then you can Daze their spell or not, then you can put one card back or another, and so on. From turn 1, you have a lot of possible plays. It’s very different from when you play a deck like Standard B/G—a lot of B/G hands have one 2-drop, one 3-drop, one 4-drop, and a 5-drop. In cases like this, you just play out your cards in the order that you can, and there’s not much for you to do.
Decks that don’t forgive small mistakes
The number of possible mistakes you can make is very relevant, but so is the degree. Take a deck like Legacy Maverick—it’s hard to play perfectly, since you have a lot of very small decisions to make with it (fetches, tutors, Wastelands, and so on). But it’s also a deck that is very forgiving, because the third best decision is very close in power level to the best decision. So even though you’re being given a lot of opportunities to mess up, your mistakes won’t be very costly—you can make them and still win. Now, if you take a deck like Storm or Hardened Scales, you can win or lose the game with one decision, which makes them harder decks in my book.
Decks that require you to change your game plan depending on what is going on
Most decks, whether they’re aggro or control, have fixed game plans—they’re always proactive or always reactive. Some decks, however, require you to assess the matchup you’re playing and your position. Decks like U/R Drakes, Spirits, Death’s Shadow, and Faeries are examples. These types of decks are usually hard to play if you’re inexperienced because they require a constant reassessment of what the game is going to be about, and you have to switch from one mindset to the other in an instant. That said, if you’re already an experienced player, you can usually navigate this type of decision even if you’re not familiar with that particular deck.
Decks that are intrinsically complex
A deck can also be difficult because it requires a lot of brain power to operate. This is the case for Amulet or KCI. With these decks, you have to see the lines that win the game, and it’s much easier to do that if you are experienced with the deck. Given infinite time, I believe most people would be able to find them, but you don’t have infinite time, so you need to find them quickly. If you’re familiar with the deck, then you already know most of the potential lines to take and what most scenarios where you win have to look like. You can quickly identify them, which means that you can afford to spend time playing around, say, Surgical Extraction. This is what Cyrus Corman-Gill was mostly referring to. I don’t think these decks are hard to play in the sense that you have to be a genius to play them, because a lot of it is just a single player puzzle, but they do require experience with that deck in particular so you aren’t overwhelmed by the sheer amount of possibilities.
Decks that require extensive knowledge of the metagame
Sometimes, especially if your deck is aggressive, then you don’t need to know much about what your opponent is doing—your mulligans are the same, your plays are the same. There are some decks, however, that demand you know the metagame very well. These decks aren’t necessarily complicated to play, but you cannot play them if you aren’t familiar with the format. One example of this is Lantern—you need to know what is in everyone’s deck so that you know what can beat you and what you have to stop them from drawing.
To make things simpler, I decided to compose “difficulty rankings,” with the goal of measuring which decks are hard or easy to play.
To do this, I polled two groups of players: professional players from my team and the competitive community as a whole (through surveys on the r/Spikes and the r/MTGLegacy subreddits). I then compared the two results to learn some interesting things about the decks (I will be giving my own opinion too).
The question I asked was:
“From 1 to 5, how much practice/experience do you need with this deck or similar decks to be able to play it in a tournament?”
This is meant to include how easy it is to grasp, how intuitive the mulligans, sideboarding, and in-game decisions are, how hard it is to play perfectly, how punishing it is when you don’t play perfectly, and so on. If there’s a deck that you believe is very hard to play perfectly but doesn’t require you to play perfectly at all to be able to win, then that would be an easy deck to play (even though it’s in theory very hard to play perfectly).
A 1 means that you can pick this deck up the day before the tournament without ever having played it before and you’ll be able to perform at a satisfactory level.
A 5 means that you should not take this deck to a tournament unless you’re very experienced with it.
Today, I’ll be going over Standard. In the future I’ll do Modern and Legacy. Here are the decks in ascending order of difficulty as ranked per the community (and please do not be offended if I, the community, or the pros rank your deck lower than you believe it should be):
#1: White Weenie / Boros
Community Rating: 1.81
Pros Rating: 1.3
My Rating: 1
White Weenie perfectly fits the bill for a “1” deck—you can just pick it up and play it, and you have every chance of playing it at a high enough level to do well. There are obviously some complicated things going on in the deck. It’s still Magic, after all, but nothing in it is particularly hard other than, perhaps, knowing how to play around sweepers (which, for the most part, you can’t). Sideboarding gets a bit trickier with the Boros builds but once you have a framework for what is good in each type of matchup, then it’s very easy to adapt to any new scenarios.
#2: Mono-Red Aggro
Community Rating: 1.86
Pros Rating: 1.7
My Rating: 1
Mono-Red is still a 1 in the sense that you can just pick it up and play it relatively well, but the fact that the community rated both Mono-Red and Mono-White almost identically is surprising to me. Even though Mono-Red isn’t complex, I think it’s a much more complicated deck than Mono-White because you have a lot more decisions. With White Weenie, your deck is all creatures, so all you have to do is play the most efficient creature that you can at all points. With Mono-Red you can, for example, decide between playing a creature or killing an opposing creature. Mono-Red also has games where you have to decide if you can win through conventional means or not, which changes how you play (making suicide attacks to then topdeck a burn spell for lethal, for example), and Mono-White simply doesn’t have this kind of play.
#3: Big Red
Community Rating: 2.51
Pro Rating: 2
My Rating: 2
Big Red isn’t that differently than Mono-Red Aggro, but I believe it is more difficult because you need to know your role in each matchup. With Mono-Red, if you just go aggressive all the time, then you’re very likely to be right, but Big Red is more nuanced and you have to assume the control role in certain matchups. Playing versus control is also not intuitive, as sneaking damage in is very important for your Banefire kill condition, and a less experienced player might value that differently.
In the end, the reason it’s a 2 and not a 3 is because you don’t need to play it perfectly to win. Even if you just show up to the tournament and you have no idea how you should play versus Jeskai, you’re still a red deck with aggressive elements, and that’ll be good for a lot of your rounds.
#4: Selesnya Tokens
Community Rating: 2.55
Pro Rating: 2.05
My Rating: 1
I think Selesnya Tokens is a pretty simple deck to play, so I’m surprised at the ratings here. It’s definitely one I would recommend for someone with no experience. The only semi-complicated concept is when you have to decide between attacking or playing a March of the Multitudes, but past that it’s almost the same as Mono-White.
#5: B/G Midrange
Community Rating: 2.79
Pro Rating: 2.55
My Rating: 2
If you’re playing B/G Midrange, I think the biggest difficulty is getting the build right. There are a lot of different cards you can play, and all of them have merit depending on what you expect, so that part is very tough, but once you have a list and are playing the game, it’s not that complicated. A lot of the time, you only have one card you can play at any given mana cost, so you just play whichever one that is and that works.
There are some decisions to be made, particularly with explore, but they are also kind of intuitive. It’s usually very clear when you need one card or not, as cards in B/G are very polarizing.
Community Rating: 3.19
Pro Rating: 2.95
My Rating: 2.5
Mono-Blue is weird because some games are extremely complicated (especially the ones where you have to play around multiple things and get tricky with your instant-speed cards), but a lot of the games are also just free wins. It doesn’t take any amount of complexity to play an unblockable creature, slap Curious Obsession on it, and then protect it from anything that’d kill it. Similarly, it doesn’t take a lot to just play two Tempest Djinns and attack them over three turns. The games you win with Mono-Blue are often very easy, but a lot of the games you’re losing are winnable if you know how to navigate them and how to turn the corner. Most of the games you win are of the very easy variety, which makes this deck an OK deck to pick up.
Mono-Blue had by far the flattest graph of any deck in my poll—almost as big a percentage of people thought it was a 1 as thought it was a 5. I think this has a lot to do with the fact that if you’ve never played this type of deck before (a deck with reactive instants but that’s also an aggressive deck), then it’s very intimidating. I would feel comfortable playing this deck with zero testing because I’ve played a lot of similar decks before, and it’s not very different from those (as opposed to a deck like KCI, which is unique). So in practice I would recommend this deck to someone who is used to the style but would not recommend it to someone who isn’t, regardless of how much experience they have with this particular build of it.
#7: U/R Drakes
Community Rating: 3.34
Pro Rating: 3.7
My Rating: 4
In my opinion, Drakes is the hardest deck to play in Standard. I also think it’s a bit “deceptively hard,” because it can win a lot of games that look very easy (just bring back one or two Phoenixes on turn 3 and then play a Drake and you win). The games that aren’t easy, however, are very hard, and you have a lot of decisions every turn, since most of your spells are cheap and many require discarding cards Arclight Phoenix by itself makes the deck hard to play because it’s an aggressive creature that happens to be a good blocker (so you often have a decision there) and because it changes how you play the rest of the game—casting a spell in one turn and then being unable to recur a Phoenix two turns later can easily be the difference between winning and losing.
Of all the Standard decks, Drakes is the only one that the pros gave a higher difficulty grade than the community as a whole (which is a trend that makes sense—the professional players should find most things slightly easier even if they try to compensate for it). This, to me, is an indication that a lot of people don’t even see the decisions that they are missing with the Drakes deck—it just goes over their heads. So if you picked up the Drakes deck and thought it was bad, practice a bit more with it and give it another try. Some games are quite complex.
#8: Jeskai with Four Niv-Mizzet
Community Rating: 3.62
Pro Rating: 2.75
My Rating: 2.5
I specifically separated Jeskai with Niv-Mizzet from Jeskai without Niv-Mizzet because I wanted to make a point. The point is that playing four copies of a card like Niv-Mizzet will by itself make your deck easier to play. Niv-Mizzet is a one-card plan that bails you out from any bad situation. You can make all sorts of mistakes, then you play a Niv-Mizzet and they don’t matter. So, yeah, it’s still a Jeskai deck, and it’s still not easy (and it can be quite hard to play perfectly), but ultimately I think the community drastically overestimates how hard this deck is to play just because control decks have a reputation for being hard.
#9: Jeskai without Niv-Mizzet
Community Rating: 3.81
Pro Rating: 3.05
My Rating: 3.5
This, on the other hand, is a significantly harder deck, in my opinion. Since you don’t have Niv-Mizzets, you don’t have a card to bail you out, and your game plan isn’t always so defined. “Survive until you cast Niv Mizzet” is a clear direction that this build of the deck doesn’t have. There were control decks not long ago whose goal was simply “survive until you play Teferi,” and those decks weren’t hard to play (Esper Control from the past season is an example), but things are not the same now, and this deck actually has a lot of intricacies. The version with Azor’s Gateway is even harder, since Azor’s Gateway in itself provides a lot of options and offers multiple paths. Taking the wrong one (exiling a costed card when you should have exiled a land, or vice-versa) can lose you the game.
So there you have it. The order with the community ratings:
- White Weenie (1.81)
- Mono-Red Aggro (1.86)
- Big Red (2.51)
- Selesnya (2.55)
- B/G Midrange (2.79)
- Mono-Blue (3.19)
- U/R Drakes (3.34)
- Jeskai with Niv-Mizzet (3.62)
- Jeskai without Niv-Mizzet (3.81)
This is sort of low on the difficulty scale, which makes sense. Standard is the entry format for most players so it cannot be very complex, and a lot of the decks suffer from the “curve out your hand” phenomenon that makes them easier, as opposed to Legacy and Modern decks where everything costs 1 or 2, which enables a lot of different permutations. Once we get to the older formats, we’ll see a lot more 4s and 5s.
I would sum up my opinion like this:
- White Weenie, Mono-Red, Selesnya Tokens, and Golgari Midrange are, for the most part, decks you can just pick up. Golgari Midrange requires a little bit more of metagame knowledge than the others.
- Big Red is a deck you can just pick up, but I recommend you play a little with it first, especially in the control matchups.
- Jeskai with Niv-Mizzet is surprisingly straightforward to play and I would consider it a very good introduction to a control deck.
- Mono-Blue is sometimes very easy to play and sometimes very challenging. If you have experience with this type of deck, I think you can just pick it up and play it. If you don’t, then it might take you a while to play it to its fullest potential.
- Jeskai without Niv-Mizzet (particularly the Gateway versions) is pretty hard to play. I would not recommend it for someone inexperienced. I think you need a decent bit of testing with it against most of the field.
- U/R Drakes might appear simple but can in reality be very complex. You can play it and do well, but it’ll be a suboptimal deck for you if you don’t extract everything you can from it. I do not recommend playing it in a tournament unless you are a good player with a decent amount of practice. I would also be mindful of my testing results against it—if your testing partner is not a skilled Drakes player, then they will skew the results a bit in your favor, and you’ll find yourself surprised in the actual tournament if you play the better players.