Learning to play a new deck can be a challenge, even for a veteran player. Sure, it's easy to find a deck list that won recently and copy it, but competitive Magic requires more than just a list to win.
Just because another player won with the list doesn't mean that you can just pick up the deck and duplicate that success. Think of all the testing that person did to get to "winning time." Today I'm going to discuss the strategies I use to quickly become proficient with a new deck.
There are plenty of reasons to take on a new deck. Did your deck of choice become poorly positioned because of new printings or bannings? Did you just watch Death's Shadow obliterate somebody on camera and think "I want a piece of that action!" Maybe you are ready for a new challenge. A new deck can be intimidating but it doesn't have to be hard or take forever. With focus and smart work, you'll be crushing with a new deck in no time.
When Nine Decks Somehow Isn't Enough
The catalyst for me to learn Bant Eldrazi was the Team Unified GP. I'm lucky to have two awesome and talented teammates: Rob Pisano and Brandon Pascal.
Brandon is an Affinity Master. He's locked in. Rob has great range. We identified that Death's Shadow Jund is too good not to be 1 of our 3 decks. Rob has more experience with Jund than I do, which made sense that he should play it. Miraculously, none of the 9 decks that I worked on and played over the past year align with Affinity and Jund Shadow (Abzan Company, Abzan Control, Grobots, Affinity, Infect, B/G Tron, Dredge, Burn, Jund Shadow).
I've grown to love Golgari decks…
So, decks, decks everywhere, but not a list to play.
There are still great options on the board: Eldrazi, Storm, and Ad Nauseum to name a few. I decided the deck I was most interested to invest in was Bant Eldrazi. I'm not going to lie—Eldrazi Displacer may have heavily influenced my decision.
"Dis place(r) is a prison,
These Eldrazi aren't your friends…"
Deck selected. Now what?
Step 1: Find a List and Jam Some Games
The logical place to start was with a list that was good enough to Top 8 something. Rob recommend bsweitz's list because he puts up consistent results with Eldrazi.
Bsweitz, 6th in an MOCS
I strongly recommend not changing anything before you have experience with the deck. The individual who put the deck together and won with it had a reason for choosing that combination of cards and it helps to learn why before you start making adjustments.
People often prefer certain cards or types of cards based on their experiences with other decks, and just because a card was dope in your Jund deck doesn't necessarily mean it will be the best option for Eldrazi. If you force a new deck into the mold of what you know about a previous deck, you are not necessarily going to get the best results.
For instance, I found some sideboard choices confusing at first glance. 3 Disdainful Stroke? It turns out these are in the 75 because they are really important against TitanShift—they counter all of the payoff cards (Primeval Titan, Scapeshift, and Through the Breach). It doesn't mean I have to stick with it forever, but I'll try anything.
Do you see what I'm getting at? There are subtle interactions that are important, and if you skip ahead in your training you will miss out on learning. It's 15 minutes into your Jedi training, and ready to face Vader you are probably not.
The next step is to play a bunch of games and get a feel for the fundamentals. A lot of people don't maximize their testing because they focus on the wrong things. Jamming a bunch of games, casting cards on curve, knowing the basic interactions (Displacer and Drowner is a combo?) and interacting is important but obvious.
The tricky part is learning which types of hands to keep or mulligan, how to effectively sideboard, and how the various matchups work.
Those borderline hands will get you killed every darn time. With a deck like Eldrazi, where the value of Eldrazi Temple is significantly higher than every other card, it is often better to mulligan since a random 6 that could have Temple is better than a marginal 7. Temple recoups a mulligan since it taps for 2.
It is also easier to identify which cards are good to bring in than which cards are best to take out. Good sideboarding is a function of understanding how matchups work. Pay attention to what kinds of games tend to occur and which spells tend to matter more or less than others in swinging the game to your favor. There is also a bonus to understanding the cards your opponents are bringing in or out against you. I always ask my opponent how they sideboarded after a match and apply that information to future matches.
Step 2: Tune Your List Based on Data and Observation
Earlier I mentioned that I don't recommend "tuning up" a list before you have experience with it. In actuality, such an exercise is more likely to "untune" than make it better.
But once you've got a nice sample of games under your belt and have a good sense of why the cards are in the deck, you are ready to customize.
I love to use www.mtgtop8.com as a resource for optimizing my deck lists. The site allows you to search for lists and features an invaluable function called "compare deck lists."
Compare deck lists brings up a spreadsheet that shows you composite averages of copies of cards across an entire archetype. It is a quick and concise way to examine a ton of data about the deck you are learning.
The first information that comes up is the average lands, creatures, and spells across your archetype. Bant Eldrazi looks like this:
- Lands: 23.2
- Creatures: 25.8
- Spells: 11
I always round lands up to the next full digit because I believe too many people cheat on lands and play bad mana bases. To start, I err on the side of caution when it comes to mana until my testing proves otherwise. Before I looked at a single card, I knew I was going to build a deck with 24 lands, 26 creatures, and 10 spells.
Making sense of composite sideboard averages is trickier than the main deck. For the most part, you'll get a very good impression of what an ideal main deck looks like within a range of 1 or 2 cards. People are much more likely to play bad sideboard cards than main deck ones, which throws the averages all out of whack. But by paying attention to cards with an average number greater than 1.0, you can get a good sense of which cards are most effective.
The numbers never lie… my sideboard has a good mix of hate for graveyards, artifact decks, and counterspells for combo and control. I'll continue to tune based on data from actual matches but the list looks like a great starting point.
Step 3: Ask for Advice to Questions You Can't Solve Outright
The last and perhaps most important piece of the puzzle is to utilize the best resource available: Friends, teammates, and other experienced players. These individuals have a wealth of information and are typically willing to share it.
I don't normally ask people right off the bat and prefer to wait until I develop good questions. If you come at somebody with, "Hey, ship list! Also, how do I play your deck?" It looks like you've done 0 homework and you will likely not get useful insight.
But if you ask a knowledgeable player, "Hey, I know you have a ton of experience with Eldrazi. I've been trying a bunch of things in the Jund matchup but haven't gotten great results. I was wondering how you approach sideboarding against them?" they will likely talk your ear off with useful tips for a half hour.
Learning a new deck is a challenge but it is also a rewarding experience. Once you've put in the work and learned the ins and outs, it becomes a potential option for any given tournament. You never know when the metagame will become ripe for a particular strategy and the more decks in your gauntlet, the better your odds.