The Psychology of Choosing Your Deck

As a former soccer player, one of the most important decisions I had to make was to decide what pair of cleats I wanted to wear. This isn’t just because of the fact that certain cleats are better for certain field conditions, but there was also very much a psychology factor. I felt very comfortable wearing my trusty Adidas Predators. I didn’t feel nearly as comfortable if I had to wear anything else.

I have several clients who are professional golfers. And without a doubt, one of the most important decisions they make is which clubs they’re going to put into their bag.

Again, this isn’t just a strategic decision. There’s a psychological factor
at play. They want to feel comfortable, confident, and secure with their clubs. That’s why you often see golfers constantly changing their putters. The moment they feel uncomfortable with a putter, that putter is gone and a new one takes its place.

In Magic, one of the most important decisions, if not the most important decision, a person will
make for a tournament is what deck they’re going to pilot. Most players will base their decision completely on a technical and strategic perspective, such as the current metagame, what the best deck is, which deck is the most hated out, etc. But I believe there’s another major factor that has to be considered when choosing a deck for a tournament: Psychology.

If you’ve read my stuff up to this point, you know that I’ve talked extensively about the importance of mindset on performance. The better your mental state when you sit down to play, the better your performance level and the better your results. The worse your
mental state when you sit down to play, the worse your performance level and the worse your results.

Make no mistake: The deck you choose is an important factor when it comes to your tournament mindset, and you need to consider the psychological aspect of your game when you do.

Everyone knows that Craig Wescoe is a White-Weenie aficionado and master. At any given Constructed tournament, you can be almost guaranteed that Craig is going to be playing some kind of white-creature-based archetype, even if it may not be the bonafide best deck in the format.

On the opposite end of the spectrum, the same can be said of
Guillaume Wafo-Tapa. Guillaume is a control aficionado and master, and at any given Constructed tournament, you can also be almost guaranteed that Guillaume is going to be playing some kind of control deck. Once again, even if it’s not the best deck.

The reason these two players make the choice to play these decks isn’t just a technical or strategic decision. There’s a psychological factor at play. The reason these two players, as well as many other players, choose to play the same archetype time after time is down to three key psychological factors: Certainty, Comfort, and Confidence.

1) Certainty

When you play with an archetype you’re familiar with, it gives you a sense of certainty. You know what to expect from the deck. You know how it’s going to
play. You know what the decision trees often look like against the other decks, you know what the play patterns will be, and you know what each turn is going to look like. If you play control decks on a consistent basis, you know with relative certainty what you’re supposed to counter and what you’re not, when the best time to play your draw spell is, and when it’s appropriate to kill a creature. Because you’ve done so many laps with the deck, your decision-making is supported by much more certainty than
when you play an archetype that you haven’t played nearly as much.

2) Comfort

When you have that distinct sense of certainty, that brings with it a feeling of comfort and security. Your mind is much more at ease and comfortable when you
play because the deck you’re playing is so familiar to you. You can feel comfortable in knowing that you know how to play your deck because you’ve played it so much, so often.

When you feel comfortable with a deck, your mind is more composed and
you’re able to both think and make decisions with clarity. If you’re an avid aggro player, you feel comfortable playing into the potential Wrath of God your opponent could cast next turn, because the sense of certainty you’ve been playing with lets you play the appropriate amount of creatures without overextending into a board wipe. You
feel comfortable doing combat math and figuring out how your opponent will block because you’ve been in these situations many times before.

3) Confidence

When you have certainty and comfort, that creates and breeds confidence in your ability to play your deck well and make the right decisions, and
confidence is without question the most fundamental and important factor when playing Magic. Brad Nelson, one of the game’s best players, once said:

“Confidence is one of the
most crucial things to have when playing Magic. It’s actually very difficult to function without it. Decisions are much more difficult to make correctly, and second-guessing yourself becomes second nature without it. It is a very slippery slope.”

If you’re very familiar with playing control, you feel confident in countering something. You feel confident when tapping out to play a spell on your turn. If you’re very familiar with playing
combo, you feel confident in waiting a turn if need be before you go off. You feel confident in going for it and trying to execute your combo when you feel the time is right to do so.

In the end, what does all of this mean? When I do my Q&A sessions over on Reddit, I’m often asked the question, “Is it better to play a deck that I’ve played a lot but isn’t necessarily the best deck, or is it better for me to just play the best deck even though I haven’t played it
very much at all?”

My answer to that is this: It’s better to play a deck that gives you those feelings of certainty, comfort, and confidence to play it over any other deck, even if the deck isn’t the best deck in the format. You’re better off playing a tier-2 deck that you feel great playing than a tier-1 deck you feel miserable playing.

Again, your mental state is going to determine the quality of your performance when you play, and the better you perform the better your results are going to be. If playing a tier-1
deck you’re unfamiliar with means you’re going to feel uncertain, uncomfortable, and unconfident when you’re playing, then your chances of making sub-optimal decisions and
playing poorly are going to be much higher, which often leads to poor results.

If playing a tier-2 deck that you’re very familiar with is going to give you much more certainty, comfort, and confidence when you’re playing, then your chances of making optimal decisions and playing at your maximum level are going to be much higher, which often leads to good results.

The great thing about Magic is that there’s variance. In most cases, though not always (Aetherworks Marvel/Saheeli Combo Standard comes to mind), the margin between tier-1 decks and tier-2 decks isn’t a massive gap. Tier-1 decks are not guaranteed to win. We see
instances all of the time of decks that are either considered tier 2 or are off the radar going into a tournament, completely beating decks that are considered to be better, and
getting great results. In knowing that, you’re much better off playing a tier-2 deck that makes you feel great when playing as opposed to playing a tier 1 deck that makes you feel miserable.

Say that you have two players playing against each other at a tournament. Player A is playing with a tier-2 deck, but she knows the deck inside out and feels extremely certain, comfortable, and confident playing the deck. Player B is playing the best deck in the format,
but he doesn’t know the deck very well at all. He feels very uncertain, uncomfortable, and unconfident playing the deck. In that scenario, Player A has a higher chance of playing well than Player B. Player A has a higher chance of getting a good result from that match than Player B, even though her deck may not be tiered as high.

In 2013, Craig Wescoe played in the World Championships. The field that weekend was littered with the two best decks in the format: “Jund Midrange” and “American Midrange.” In fact, 13 of the 16 decks in the field were those two archetypes. Craig managed to make the Top 8 playing a Boros Humans deck. He could have opted to play either of the two best decks for the tournament. Instead, he chose to play something that gave him a sense of certainty comfort, and confidence. He chose his wheelhouse. He did the same exact thing when he played in Pro Tour Dragon’s Maze leading up to Worlds that year. He played Selesnya Aggro when the rest of the field pretty much stuck to the two best decks in the format: Red Deck Wins and Esper Control. He won that tournament, and he did it by playing a deck he felt certain, comfortable, and confident playing instead of trying to play otherdecks that were considered to be higher tier decks.

For your next Constructed tournament, when you start deciding what to play, don’t just look at the technical and strategic factors. Look at the psychological factors as well. If you’re
thinking of playing a deck, make sure that it’s something that gives you those three key psychological factors: Certainty, comfort, and confidence. If a deck doesn’t give you those, stay away from it.

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