Magic is a complicated game. Just when you think you’ve got a handle on how things work… BOOM! The game changes and you are sent back to the drawing board to second guess everything you thought you knew.
The things that tend to throw me off most are typically related to relying on presumptions and patterns from the past. When a particular approach worked well before, I’m apt to believe it will work again in the present, but old solutions don’t always work for new problems.
No matter the problem you are trying to solve, gaming or otherwise, context is key. The value of an object, approach, or Magic card varies dramatically depending upon the circumstance. Simple analogy: Gold is valuable, but if you are dying of thirst in the desert while waiting for help to arrive you’d trade it all for a canteen of H20. Value is context driven.
Arena is a New Context
Most players underestimate how different the context actually is and how much it will effect strategy, gameplay, and deckbuilding. We have so much experience playing and driving theory from MTGO and IRL paper events, but MTGA is relatively new.
If we approach MTGA with the assumption and expectation that it is the same as paper or MTGO tournaments, the results will reflect that miscalculation.
There are two important contextual differences that come with Arena:
- Best of One (BO1): Before Arena, the majority of players experienced competitive Magic by playing three-game matches. Best-of-one is something completely new.
- A Broader Range of Opponents: One of the most exciting aspects of Arena is the way it has brought Magic to a new and larger audience. With Arena being a new platform and since earning cards requires grinding, card availability plays a role (since you can’t trade or sell cards to get new ones).
A lot of tournament players acknowledge these differences and make the following evaluation: so, it’s just watered down, bad Magic that panders to newbies? It’s a default presumption that a lot of experienced tournament players bring to the table. Yet, it isn’t a useful attitude if you are actually trying to learn how to be a better Arena player.
The more I play Arena the farther I distance myself from that initial impression. I’ll take the heat for saying it: I actually like BO1 a lot. The more I play a balanced and dynamic Standard format that doesn’t require a sideboard to be a fail safe for broken linear cards and strategies, the more I am able to see the upside it brings to gameplay, deckbuilding, and the overall play experience.
As for the second point, I have no issue with Magic expanding its audience to include new players. It doesn’t take long to climb the ladder and find yourself matched against equal opponents. I welcome intuitive and user-friendly design and gameplay. I’d rather spend my time and mental energy thinking about how to tune decks and which lines to take than trying to wrap my mind around non-intuitive cards, interactions, and platforms.
It’s perfectly natural to be apprehensive to change. Part of what is enjoyable about a hobby is its comfort and familiarity. With that being said, the most consistent and predictable thing about Magic is that it always changes, often in dramatic fashion!
Deck Building for Arena
The question I’ve been asked the most times over the past week on social media, Twitch, and even by professional player friends has been how to build better decks for BO1 Ranked Ladder games.
No sideboard means that you can’t rely on dramatically altering your strategy to fix bad matchups. Condensing matches into one game also emphasizes the importance of consistent mana, since it’s do or die every time.
Of course, it’s frustrating to lose a match because you didn’t draw your lands. When has this ever not been true about Magic? I’d also argue that it’s degrees more frustrating to lose game 3 to mana screw. The difference is that I didn’t have to waste thirty minutes for the anticlimactic reveal that mana screw decided the match.
A lot of players see good mana, linear aggro, no sideboard and card availability issues, and immediately reach the following conclusion:
RDW and WW are in BO1. Arena sounds stupid and unbalanced in favor of linear aggro.
Let me ask you this: if every single person can immediately jump to that conclusion after 15 seconds of thought and zero play experience, how good of an assumption can it possibly be? The broad generalization that WW and RDW are king is exactly Level 1.
It’s not even that different from simply playing these decks early in a competitive paper format. Remember how WW dominated the Pro Tour? I’d argue that BO1 is still a fledgling format and the theory about how to maximize deck building is still largely unwritten.
Today’s article is about Level 1, but the depth of the format extends well beyond mono-colored aggro decks running into one another. With that being said, RDW and WW both play an important role in the metagame and are an equally nice place to begin your Arena journey since they are easier on the wild cards to build and don’t require dual lands.
Arena BO1 RDW
RDW is straightforward and easy to assemble for BO1 play. It’s also worth noting that the higher you get the more hostile and prepared the metagame becomes toward decks like basic red deck.
Phoenix is extremely popular right now on Arena. It’s a quality threat and hard for opposing red decks to answer. I’m also packing Lava Coils in my list. It’s an answer to opposing Phoenixes but also another way to kill Wildgrowth Walker, which is a must kill against Golgari aggro. Both are cards that you’ll see a ton of once you hit gold!
Ming Xu’s Big Red is a great Arena deck. In my opinion it is much better than RDW for BO1 play because it is very good in the mirror and against other aggressive decks. With that being said, it’s less popular online because it requires a lot more wild cards to build but is worth aspiring to.
The reason I like Big Red so much as an Arena choice is because it feels like it is pre-sideboarded for aggro matchups. I brought up the point that even players who haven’t played Arena can identify that BO1 would inherently favor linear aggro strategies. While that is theoretically correct, the metagame has adapted to be inherently hostile toward these types of Level 1 BO1 decks. Just because you can’t sideboard doesn’t mean that people don’t pre-sideboard for aggro in BO1!
Spite makes right:
Mono-White Life Gain
Another fairly cheap to assemble mono-colored aggro deck that punishes other aggro decks quite badly. My point is that while RDW is certainly a good deck, you are not going to game the system by playing it in BO1. In fact, you are the one likely to get gamed!
I have a couple of different versions of White and Boros Aggro that I like to run in BO1.
Pretty basic White Weenie. I really like Knight of Grace a lot since it is a functional “sideboard card” against black removal. It’s a Knight and a nice target to rebuy with Ajani. I’m also a fan of versions of this build that splash red for Heroic Reinforcements or eight Boros dual lands.
Do you know how people say, “Every deck gets grindier after sideboard?” Typically one of the general ways sideboarding works is as follows: both players bring in cards that will hamstring powerful tactics the other player can execute and/or diversify with threats that are difficult for the opposing deck to answer.
One of the big trends I’ve noticed in successful BO1 decks is to be a little less focused and a little more flexible. The random 1-ofs go a long way toward stealing games and upping your overall win percentage. One of the biggest mistakes that new Arena players make is to simply plug unsideboarded GP lists into BO1. It doesn’t exactly translate and you’ll want to adapt them for BO1 play.
For instance, my White Weenie deck is still fairly focused but I’ve got Lyra, Ajani, and Knights in there as trump cards I hope to draw against specific matchups. It doesn’t cost a ton but the payoff is very high. It’s a delicate balance and trying to figure out how to get the most advantage out of these kinds of tweaks and tunes is the deck building strategy of BO1.
With that being said, here is one of the best linear decks to “get somebody with.”
If there is an Arena deck that really benefits from being its linear self, it’s Mono-Blue Tempo. I always seem to do well when I dust this gem off and take it for a spin. While a lot of decks have adapted by becoming more grindy for aggro, that approach doesn’t always line up well against Mono-Blue because it is so nimble.
Having a bunch of expensive sweepers may punish RDW and WW but it’s far less effective against a deck with a bunch of cheap counterspells!
I’ve gone over a lot of decks and information today, but have still barely scratched the surface. I do believe that mono-color aggro is an important segment of the metagame. These types of decks are really popular right now. In large part, it’s because they are easier to build (since they tend to require ;ess wild card crafting than decks with a bunch of dual lands). These decks also have the advantage of much more consistent mana bases: 22 identical basics!
Even within the framework of White Weenie or Red Deck Wins, there is considerable variation, which is cool.
It makes a lot of sense to start at Level 1. Many of these decks are fairly easy to assemble for you to get started in the BO1 Arena. Remember, sideboard ranked matches are always an option, so you don’t have to play BO1, but if learning more about the format interests you, these are some nice options to start with. Just remember that people will be gunning for aggro as you climb higher. It’s important to treat best-of-one as a different format, because it is. Once you get started and start learning about how the metagame works there is a lot of really interesting game play, metagaming, and deckbuilding taking place. Hope to see you in Arena!