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Last time, we looked at deck diversity at the Pro Tour and how choosing the most popular or second most popular deck might not be the best idea if you want to win.

As those articles so often do, we assumed player skill right out of the picture. That’s obviously wrong, or else you wouldn’t have a Hall of Fame. Instead, you’d have a sort of “car museum” for all the best archetypes.

So this week I wanted to take a look at the other side of the picture. Which players crush at the Constructed side of the Pro Tour? How consistently do they do it?

And tying it back together, how often do they play the most popular deck, a deck in the top three, or something else altogether?

Crushing the Format. Again.

As a refresher, the standard we applied last time in analyzing decks was to ask which lists brought one or more pilots to records of 24+ points in the Constructed rounds of the Pro Tour.

This week, we’re going to apply the same standard to players, looking at a selection of players who achieved records of 24+ points in the Constructed portions of Pro Tours. As before, we’re looking at all the mixed format PTs from Honolulu 2009 onward.

Some Basic Numbers

In the survey period, some 127 players hit the 24+ mark in Constructed at least once. Among them, those 127 players racked up 154 instances of scoring 24+ points in Constructed portions of PTs. That’s an average of 14 players scoring 24+ points in Constructed per PT.

108 players hit this mark exactly once.

12 players hit the mark twice.

6 players hit the mark three times.

1 player hit the mark four times.

That impressive four-time achiever is Gaudenis Vidugiris, by the way.

Our Basic Question

There are probably a lot of insights we can derive from the stats of top Constructed performers at the PT level, but today I’m going to focus on one basic set of questions:

What deck did they play each time that they ran the tables in Constructed?

Did they play the consensus best deck? The second best? The third?

Did their deck choice pattern differ those times when they just did well (15-23 points) and those other times when they crashed and burned in Constructed (less than 15 points)?

Do these top Constructed achievers have a consistent deck choice pattern they all share, or that groups of them share?

Deck Choices of Top Constructed Performers

For today, we’re going to take a look at the performance and deck choices of nine players. Each of these players either has a 30% or better rate of hitting the 24+ point mark in Constructed, or hit it 3 or more times in the period surveyed.

Some General Numbers for Top Performers

The nine players we’re looking at today share 26 Constructed performances of 24+ points among themselves. Here are some other numbers about their performance as a whole group before we start looking at individuals:

As we can see from the wide range of 15+ point performances, being a top performer two or three times isn’t a guarantee of consistent performance in Constructed at the PT—although it does correlate to some pretty awesome performance records in most cases.

With that out of the way, let’s look at each player in our set of nine, starting with the only one with four instances of a 24+ performance in the Constructed portions of PTs. We’ll touch on their records first, then do a bit more analysis afterward.

Gaudenis Vidugiris

Gaudenis Vidugiris is the only player who hit the 24+ mark four times in the survey period, performing well at Nagoya, Amsterdam, San Juan, and San Diego. Gau also does well in Constructed generally, hitting the 15+ point mark over 72% of the time.

Here’s his performance captured in a chart format that I’ll be using for each person in today’s piece:

This chart captures information on whether a player chose to play one of the most common decks or something else, and then how well they did in each case. The columns indicate whether a player chose to play the most common deck at the tournament, a fairly common deck at that tournament, or something else. It breaks down like this:

“Most popular” = The deck was the most played at that PT.
“Popular” = The deck was the second or third most played at that PT.
“Other” = The deck was not in the top three most frequently played at that PT.

The color bands highlight how many Constructed points the player earned in each case, with the top band being 24+ points, the middle band being 15-23 points, and the bottom band indicating less than 15 points.

For example, Gaudenis played Mythic at PT San Diego. It was not one of the three most common deck choices (“Other”) and it earned him 24 or more points in Constructed (green band at the top). In comparison, Spectral Flight was also not a top three choice (“Other”), but it only earned Gau a respectable “yellow band” performance (15-23 points).

In other words, left is a more common deck choice and right is an uncommon one. Top is high scoring, bottom is low scoring.

Gau has a clear penchant for making uncommon deck choices, as that category comprises the vast majority of his PT decks. Many of them are Zvi Mowshowitz designs such as Mythic that, in many cases, successfully exploited unseen holes in the metagame.

Samuele Estratti

The PT Philadelphia winner has a total of three events with Constructed performances of 24+ points (including his win in Philadelphia). Estratti is less consistent than Vidugiris in Constructed events, hitting the 15+ mark only about 55% of the time.

Twice Estratti played the second most popular deck, choosing Splinter Twin at PT Philadelphia and Devastating Red at PT San Juan. Notably, these were deck choices that both underperformed in their respective PTs, launching fewer of their pilots into the 24+ point bracket than their numbers would have predicted.

In contrast, All-in Red was straight out of left field, with just 4 people running the deck out of the field of nearly 400 at PT Austin.

One potential take-away here for Estratti in particular might be don’t play the most popular deck, or at the very least don’t play Valakut decks. But that’s just being cutesy.

Jon Finkel

In attending just 6 of the surveyed PTs, Jon Finkel has hit the 24+ mark in Constructed twice, at PT Return to Ravnica and at PT Philadelphia.

Both events featured the Modern format. Both times, Finkel played Storm.

Pretty straightforward. If Jon can play Storm, he does. And he wins.

Jon has scored 20+ points in each of the last four PTs. In the two where he didn’t hit the 24+ point mark, he played Spectral Flight (PT Avacyn Restored) and Spirit Delver (PT Dark Ascension). Although Finkel didn’t hit the 24+ mark in either of those PTs, he did Top 8 both of them.

Koutarou Ootsuka

It’s always fun trying to aggregate data for Japanese players across multiple events, since the way their names are transliterated tends to be a little bit fluid from coverage team to coverage team.

Like Finkel, Ootsuka tallied two 24+ performances across six Pro Tours, although his average performance was understandably not as exceptional as Jon’s.

Ootsuka made his mark at PT Austin with Dredge, which was the second most popular deck in a very fragmented field. Dredge was a reasonable choice on average at Austin, being slightly over-represented in the 24+ club. Dredge was also Ootsuka’s only “mainstream” deck choice, with the rest of his choices resting firmly in the righthand “Other” column.

Josh Utter-Leyton

The first ChannelFireball team member to show up in today’s tallies, Josh has hit 24+ Constructed points in 3 of the 9 PTs he attended out of the surveyed 11. Josh has been very successful in Constructed, hitting 15+ points over 77% of the time.

In his three 24+ performances, Josh has played the team deck each time. This has twice also meant that he is playing the most popular choice in the field, first in Nagoya, where he played Tempered Steel, and most recently at PT Return to Ravnica, where he played Jund. At PT Philadelphia Josh played Zoo, which was the third most popular choice.

Josh has generally been on “solid” deck choices, including Wolf Run Ramp at PT Dark Ascension and Dark Depths at PT Austin, both times he performed well in Constructed. Even at PT San Diego, where Josh didn’t do well in Constructed, he was on the team deck choice of Boss Naya.

If there’s a story for Josh’s deck choices, it seems to be “pick a solid choice and then play very, very well.” Josh is the only player in today’s set of nine to have multiple 24+ performances using the most popular deck in the field.

Robert Jurkovic

Converting just slightly fewer than a third of his appearances into 24+ performances, Robert Jurkovic has either done very well or not so hot at all in the Constructed portions of recent PTs. Despite his three 24+ performances, he has the lowest percentage of 15+ point appearances in Constructed.

A quick look at Jurkovic’s deck choices suggests that in a sort of opposition to Estratti’s profile, playing less popular decks is especially bad for him.

Paulo Vitor Damo Da Rosa

PV is the second appearance on this list from a CFB team member, tagging in with 3 performances of 24+ in Constructed at PT Dark Ascension, PT Austin, and PT San Juan, which he won.

PV was on the team deck at PTs San Juan and Dark Ascension, playing Comet Storm and Wolf Run Ramp, respectively.

Paulo’s chart reflects his general strength as a player, with creditable finishes in all popularity categories and only two genuinely poor Constructed records in the past 11 PTs.

Brian Kibler

The third Hall of Famer in today’s review is our first true all-arounder, having scored crushing Constructed records with the most popular deck, a popular deck, and a complete outlier.

Brian’s chart is also an excellent opportunity to consider deck choice in terms of what hasn’t worked (this is an area where Brian also writes solid articles, so you can likely find his own discussion of any deck choice issues). Nassim Taleb, author of The Black Swan, discusses the idea of making decisions by considering the impact of the negative outcomes rather than just the possible positive outcomes.

Looking at Brian’s record, he has had a reasonable spread of results when playing popular decks, but has a heavy weighting toward poor performances when playing less common archetypes—even though one of his 24+ point performances did come in this category.

More on that in just a bit.

Luis Scott-Vargas

Our last entry in the nine is the second all-arounder. Like Kibler, Luis has a 24+ performance in each of the three deck categories. Much like Kibler, Luis also has had strong performances with the second or third most popular deck, and has his largest collection of poor performances when using decks in the “Other” category, although his losses there are not as common as Kibler’s.

So What Does This All Mean?

These play records and results form an interesting but potentially bewildering basis on which to draw any conclusions about good players and their deck choices. In reading through the profiles so far, you’ve probably taken away the fact that there are some kind of patterns there, but it may not be immediately clear what they are, or what they mean in terms of your own deck choices.

Fortunately, we can do a little bit of analysis that lets us group some of these players together based on their deck choices and records of success (and failure), and then draw some tentative conclusions from that.

Deck Choice Seen Through Fuzzy Glasses

In doing this kind of analysis, we can find ourselves mislead by the specifics. But since our questions today are about whether top players choose the most common, common, or uncommon decks—and then what happens in each case—we want to look at the information we have through that filter.

This all boils down to representing a record like Josh Utter-Leyton’s like this:

This is the same grid as before, with the deck names removed. Instead, the intensity of the color in a given square increases as that region contains more PT results. For example, Josh’s “24+ Popular” square (the top middle one) is light green because he has one result in this area, but his “24+ Most Popular” square (the top left one) is a more intense green, as it has two results in that area.

So with that abstraction approach in mind, let’s close on some ideas about what we might take away from the deck choices of these top performers.

Consider What Works for You

The profiles of both Gaudenis Vidugiris and Koutarou Ootsuka are marked by each player’s preference for decks outside of the most popular choices.

We might intuitively take away from this the idea that one approach to success is to always pick the outlier. The risk here is that since Vidugiris and Ootsuka have nearly always chosen to play uncommon decks, we don’t know if they wouldn’t do even better if they played more common decks.

On the other hand, we want to keep in mind something I discussed last time. Even if we can’t say that a successful deck choice made a player succeed in a Constructed event, we can say that it allowed them to win.

At least in the case of Vidugiris, playing uncommon decks clearly allows him to perform quite well in Constructed portions of PTs, with only about a 22% rate of hitting below 15 points, and a pleasing 33% rate of hitting 24+.

Consider What Doesn’t Work for You

On the other hand, there are a couple players in this list of outstanding Constructed performers whose records suggest that they shouldn’t be trying quite so hard to find a unique deck against the field. Whereas Gaudenis has had great success in taking uncommon archetypes to victory, both Brian Kibler and Robert Jurkovic find themselves with predominantly negative results from bringing uncommon deck choices to the PT.

Two-thirds of Jurkovic’s uncommon deck choices have been a part of poor Constructed showings, whereas decks in the “popular” slot have only let him down about half the time.

As a solid all-around player, Kibler has made his mark with 24+ point performances using a variation on the best deck, a popular deck, and an uncommon deck that was an unexpected, highly tuned attack on a block metagame. His overall play record suggests that his real strengths as a player might be best enabled by running highly tuned version of the more common decks in the metagame, rather than trying to beat it via outliers. 75% of his “other” choices correlated with poor Constructed showings. In contrast, only a third of his “popular” choices led to poor results, with a good half of them leading to solid Constructed outcomes.

In a similar vein, Estratti’s record so far shows that playing the most popular deck has not worked out well for him at all:

No hard and Fast Rules, but Some Guidelines

Looking at these high performers, it first becomes clear that you’ll probably do best by figuring out what your performance pattern is and aiming your deck choice toward that. Take a look at this side-by-side comparison of Constructed records:

In the surveyed PTs, Gaudenis has almost always picked a “rare” choice, an outlier deck that isn’t being played by more than 5% or so of the field (and sometimes that’s only being played by the testing group he’s a part of). Luis’s pattern has been to try to crack the metagame, but then to go with whatever deck seemed best in testing overall, even if that means playing the most popular deck—or more frequently, one of the second- or third-place decks.

So probably the best starting point for our own deck choices is to figure out whether we’re a “most popular deck” kind of person, a “metagame response” kind of person, or whether we actually succeed at playing outliers.

There’s one other thing to consider in deciding which deck we’re going to go with. Last time, we saw that going for the second- or third-most popular choice was a poor choice at a Block Constructed PT. From the results of this survey’s top performers, we see something else interesting about going with the most popular deck:

This is the distribution of results from everyone in this survey. You can see that most top performers simply don’t pick the most popular deck in the first place, but when they do, it’s also kind of a risk. Check out the distribution of results within each deck choice category:

Turns out, picking the most popular choice has meant poor results nearly half the time. In contrast, for the top performers in this survey, playing a second- or third-choice deck was typically the “safe” option, resulting in 15+ points in Constructed almost three quarters of the time.

I’ll close today with this record:

Josh is the only person in this survey with more than one 24+ result playing the most popular deck. Given how easy it is to crash and burn when playing the most popular deck, this is even more impressive than you might first think.

So what do you think? Do you believe you have a “style” when it comes to choosing to play with or against the metagame?

…and does your belief actually match your record?

magic (at) alexandershearer.com
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