An opponent once asked me, “hey Mike, how do you beat someone who you know is better than you?” He was joking, insinuating that I was a better player than he. The question was rhetorical, but I had an answer:
“Play a better deck.”
Deck advantage is the concept that when you present your deck to your opponent, your deck will give you an advantage, regardless of play skill. If I sit down with a deck with 20 Mountains and 40 Shocks, and you sit down with a deck with 20 Mountains and 40 Lightning Bolts, you will have an outright advantage. Obviously it gets more complicated, but in its most basic form, that is deck advantage.
At the Pro Tour level, deck advantage is the most important way to gain an advantage in the event because everyone plays so well that tight technical play only gets you in the door with everyone else—the only thing left is to simply submit a better deck. There are a few ways to gain deck advantage for a tournament.
Brew a New Archetype
First, you can brew a new archetype. Other players can develop plans to attack the an existing archetype from different angles. A new deck that catches them unprepared will often leave them without good sideboard plans.
In testing for a Pro Tour, sometimes you don’t even realize how good your new deck may be because everyone in the house knows the deck and plays against it close to perfectly because of that. At the Pro Tour, this is not always the case. Players will sideboard poorly given only a couple of minutes to make critical decisions, or play right into a card they didn’t know you had or couldn’t deduce you had.
I showed up to Pro Tour Oath of the Gatewatch with Colorless Eldrazi and thought my deck was “solid.” I walked out of the event with maybe the best deck in Pro Tour history. I simply didn’t know, because I had played so much with so many different versions and everyone knew they could be facing down a Chalice of the Void on 1 in game 1, where players at the Pro Tour were caught completely off-guard.
This type of deck advantage is the best edge you’ll get at a Pro Tour, but with information moving so quickly these days, and the Pro Tours being pushed back further from the release date, this type of advantage is vanishingly difficult to find.
Innovative Plans for an Old Archetype
The second way to get a deck advantage, and the one you will most often see at the Pro Tour now, is by tuning an existing archetype. A perfect example of this was what PGO did at Worlds. PGO played Temur Energy, a very established and well-known archetype, but they changed the deck fundamentally by adding a Torrential Gearhulk sideboard plan. This gave the deck a new axis, allowing it to play better at instant speed in both the mirror and against control.
Other players in the event had plans against Temur, but not against this impressive new sideboard plan, and that gave them an advantage because the games play out differently when the usual all-sorcery-speed deck gets to play on the opponent’s turn.
This is the form of deck advantage you’ll notice most at the Pro Tour these days with Magic Online being such an important tool for testing for the Pro Tour. New archetypes rarely stay secret, but players working on an existing archetype and making changes to improve the deck are how players get an edge.
At Pro Tour Pro Tour Hour of Devastation, Team ChannelFireball Ice had one of the best versions of Ramunap Red because we simply added a land or two to the deck to make Hazoret the Fervent more reliable, and because we devised a good sideboard plan for the mirror match, a matchup we knew would be popular.
Play a Metagame Deck
If you’re able to perfectly predict a metagame, and happen to know that a largely disproportionate share of the metagame will be represented by, say, Modern Burn, you may choose to play Soul Sisters. Using this approach is only good when you can pinpoint the most popular deck you have a good matchup against, and reasonable the rest of the time.
I’ve seen a lot of players make the mistake of playing a deck that beat, say, Modern Eldrazi before Eye of Ugin was banned, but their deck was bad against the rest of the decks in that metagame. Even if Eldrazi was 50% of the field, you’d still often have bad matchups in the other 50% if your deck is zeroed in on one specific deck.
To metagame properly, you need to have a favorable matchup against two or three of the most popular decks, and a high degree of confidence about other decks you’re likely to play against.
Draft/Open a Better Deck
While this is a basic way to get a deck advantage, Limited is where you usually notice the biggest edges. We’ve all shown up to Sealed Deck tournaments, seen a friend with a completely busted Sealed deck, and wonder how they’ll ever lose. While there’s little control in Sealed Deck, there’s plenty of control in Booster Draft.
In Booster Draft you get to make choices with every pack. By finding open colors, you leave yourself the opportunity to pick up more powerful cards later in the draft. “Red is wide open—I got a fourth-pick Burning Sun’s Avatar!” By drafting well you will often gain an edge in the power level of your deck, giving you an advantage as soon as you sit down with your opponent.
If you learn the format well enough, you’ll also know how well each card lines up in the format, and in what situations certain cards will be useful. Is the format too fast for that 7-mana bomb rare? Too slow for 2-mana 2/1s with no relevant abilities? You have to both learn the format through practice and preparation, and then apply what you’ve learned to how you draft your deck to see how your deck will line up within the context of the format.
Find a Broken Card
While this ties into brewing a new archetype, I thought I’d point out that sometimes when you watch Pro Tour coverage, people completely miss on cards. At Pro Tour Return to Ravnica, I did very little testing. In fact, I did none. It was a Modern PT, and I was just going to play Jund. I didn’t need much practice, right? Friends I went with told me that Deathrite Shaman might be good in Jund. Without testing it, I was skeptical. I decided that I’d hedge and play 2 since I wasn’t sure how good it would be.A lot of people didn’t even play 2. While I cashed at the Pro Tour, I missed an opportunity to do even better by playing a now banned card in Modern.
In the tournaments leading up Pro Tour Eldritch Moon, I scarcely saw an Emrakul, the Promised End. My teammates and I were lucky enough to find out how good it was, but still didn’t lean as heavy on it as we should have, playing more cards like Vessel of Nascency to make it better.
Sometimes a card is broken, and no one or very few people figure it out. Sometimes it creates a new archetype like Emrakul, the Promised End did, or sometimes you just add it to an existing archetype as in the case of Deathrite Shaman in Modern Jund.
There’s no worse feeling after a Pro Tour than saying something like, “We missed Emrakul, guys.” I know because I’ve been there.
Having a deck that matches up well against an opponent’s deck is the easiest way to earn wins. I would define the ability to constantly present a better deck than the opponent as the most underrated skill in Magic, and one of the skills I attribute a lot of my own personal success too.