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Having a Play Style

As you may or may not know, I’ve started coaching for Magic. Whenever I coach someone new, one question invariably pops up: “Should I play the style of deck I’m most familiar with/like the most, or should I play what is best?”

The answer to this question is, as with most Magic questions, “it depends.”

1) What is your goal?

In a perfect world, the answer to the original question is always going to be “play what is best,” because in a perfect world, you can pilot every style of deck, which makes it a strict upside to play the best deck. Of course, in reality, almost no one can play every deck at a high level, but some people are much closer than others, and the way you get closer is by branching out to begin with.

Take me, for example. At this point in my life, I’ve played every style of deck at a high level. I’m known for playing decks like Faeries and Esper Dragons, but I recently won a Pro Tour with Mono-Red. I’ve played different styles for so long that I know that if I have to pick up a deck a week before the event, I’ll be able to play it relatively well. This allows me to play the best deck if I find it very close to the event. Maybe this mono-red deck is different than the mono-red deck I played before, but I know how to play “mono-red,” and that’s a competitive advantage I have over someone who does not, because if that same person finds “mono-red” a week before the event, they will not have time to master it.

If your goal is to improve as a Magic player, you simply have to branch out. There will be a time in your life where the best deck is not the style you like to play, and if you ever miss out on that deck, that’s a huge problem. If you stick to a style of deck, then that creates a cycle that perpetuates—the more you dedicate to playing, say, control decks, then the more incentivized you’ll be to play control decks in new tournaments since you already have all this knowledge. At some point, you’ll be a 10 with control and a 0 with aggro and you’ll never even pick up aggro regardless of how good it is.

If your goal is to win one specific event, however, then I’d advise you to play the style you’re already familiar with. Right now, decks are really close to each other in power level across all formats, which means that the percentage you give by playing the third-best deck as opposed to the best deck is very small compared to what you gain by being familiar with your deck and archetype. Familiarity has many benefits, and it allows you to react to way more situations because you’ve simply encountered more of them. If I’m playing a deck I have never played before against a deck I’ve never played before, it becomes really hard to mulligan or sideboard. If I’m familiar with my own deck, then I probably know how it behaves in matchups that are similar to the one I’m facing, and I at least have an idea of what’s going on.

So, I’d say that for short-term gains, your best plan is to stick to what you know. But if you have long-term plans, then you have to branch out and play what is best from time to time. In practice, I’d make an effort to play different decks in my off-time. If I’m testing for a GP, for example, then I would dedicate all my time to mastering one deck, and that’s probably going to be a style I’m familiar with because I think that’s what gives me the best chance to do well in that tournament. But if I’m not testing for anything specific and just jamming MTGO Leagues or FNMs, then I would try to play different things.

Another thing you can do is dedicate your early testing to trying different things. For example, imagine that I am a Mono-Red player and I have four weeks to prepare for an event. The first thing I would do is establish if Mono-Red is viable. Say I find that it’s good, but not great—it’s a deck I can play, but it’s not the best deck, or it’s at least not noticeably better than the rest.

This process should take very little time—about two or three days max. What then? Well, how much time do I really need to perfect my Mono-Red skills? Probably not four weeks. I’ve played it for so long. So I would dedicate the first one or two weeks to playing different decks, because if I find one that’s better than the rest, then I still have time to become proficient with it. If I do not find one in two weeks, then I’d go back to Mono-Red, and the two weeks I have remaining should be enough to let me master that specific build because I am already so familiar with the archetype. If you dedicate all of your earlier time to Mono-Red, then you might find something amazing by the third or fourth week and not have time to play it. Do this long enough, and you might become proficient with other styles of decks in the future as well.

There’s also another possible goal: you want to catch people’s attention. If that’s the case, then choosing a deck and playing it in every tournament might work out for you because it makes for a better story. Everyone knows that Craig Wescoe is the White Weenie guy, or Wafo-Tapa and Shota are the control guys, and so on. I wouldn’t recommend this for most people, but if you’re looking specifically to become more famous (because you are, say, interested in writing) then this is an avenue you can pursue to find your niche.

2) How much worse is your deck?

Some formats have clear best decks, and some are more spread out across the board. Everything I wrote in #1 assumes that your deck is at least competitive for the metagame. If it’s particularly horrible, then you should not play it, no matter how familiar you are with it. I like to think that a deck has a value of 1-10 in power or metagame position, and then a player can get anywhere from 0% to 100% of that deck, and it’s better to play a 9 at 50% than a 3 at 100%.

Take Guillaume Wafo-Tapa (who, for the unfamiliar, is an even more extreme Shota Yasooka when it comes to playing control). At some point in his life, Wafo-Tapa bought four foil Cryptic Commands, and he was determined to get his money’s worth. He played those Cryptics in every single event. Seriously, I challenge you to find a deck that Wafo-Tapa has played without Cryptic Command in any format where Cryptic has been legal. And you know what, that worked for him—Cryptic Command was a really good card back when it was in Standard, and the decks that played it were really good. For a period of years, Wafo-Tapa was one of the best players in the world.

Then Cryptic Command rotated out. Other control cards rotated out. Yet, Wafo-Tapa stuck to playing control, even though it was clearly not a supported archetype in that rotation. People were killing each other on turn 4, and Wafo-Tapa was tapping 4 mana to cast Sift. Do you know what Sift does? It’s like a Trial of Knowledge that doesn’t come back if you play a Cartouche. It’s a horrible card. Wafo-Tapa lost, over and over, and he never stopped playing control until eventually he fell off the train.

Wafo-Tapa was a master at playing control decks—he might have been the best in the world at it. He was clearly playing it at a 100% level. But for that metagame, control was a 1, and 100% of 1 is still 1. He would probably have been better off playing a stronger deck, even if he was playing it much worse than he was playing control. I had a period where I went through this as well, playing Esper Control decks when they clearly weren’t as good as the other decks that existed. When you notice that the cards you are playing just aren’t as strong as the cards everyone else is playing, it’s time to give up.

3) How complex is the best deck?

Some decks are easier to grasp than others, or more similar to something you already know. If your “style” is Mono-Red and the best deck is Mardu, then you should make an effort to play the best deck because they’re very similar and you will be able to grasp it. If your style is Mono-Red and the best deck is U/B God-Pharaoh’s Gift, however, you’re going to need more time, and if time is short, you might be better off sticking to what you know.

Simply put, there are some decks that are more complicated than others. If Scapeshift is the best deck, you really have no excuse not to play it because you can pick it up in a day. If Affinity is the best deck, well, that’s actually a pretty hard deck to play properly, so it might be better to go with your style if you aren’t familiar with it. Here, it pays off to know your strengths and your limitations.

4) What format are you playing?

Standard

Standard is the format that most punishes you for sticking to a style. This is for a couple of reasons:

The format rotates and certain decks become non-competitive. Sometimes, cards simply don’t exist for a strategy to be competitive, and it’s a huge mistake to stick to your style. If you mostly play Standard, then you should branch out.

The metagame is narrow and changes quickly. Standard metagames are much narrower than Modern or Legacy. In Modern, everything is 5% of the field. In Standard, there are fewer decks, so everything is 15% and some decks are 20% or more. Standard also changes constantly because more people have access to all the cards, more tournaments are happening, and more people write about it, so a deck can go from 1% in a week to 15% in another or vice-versa.

This means that it’s much more likely that a deck is well positioned in a given week in Standard than in Modern or Legacy, which punishes you more for staying true to a style or deck. For example, you could be an expert at a style of deck that loses to counterspells, and that deck can be great for one week. But then the following week, a counterspell deck explodes in popularity and you have to be able to adapt. If you look at the Genesis guys who do very well in Constructed GPs (Brad, Seth, BBD), you’ll notice that they almost never play the same deck for two Standard tournaments—they always change to something they believe is better positioned because this is something you can do in Standard. If you stick to one deck or style, you miss out.

It also means that there aren’t many decks to test against. Most of the time, there are three to five decks that you actually care about beating, which means that you can change decks and still have enough time to feel practiced against most of the field.

Modern

Modern is the format that rewards you the most for knowing your deck and sticking to it. In most ways, it’s the opposite of Standard.

The format doesn’t rotate. This means that, if you like to play a deck, you’ll probably be able to continue playing that deck for many years, so you’re not going to be punished nearly as much (though you still could, if something gets banned).

The format is very wide and changes little. There are over 20 viable decks in Modern, and people tend to play whatever they have or own the cards for. The format is a lot more impervious to metagame shifts, articles, and tournament results. If your deck can’t beat a strategy that is 1% of the field, it’s very unlikely that it’ll be more than 5% in the next tournament, even if it explodes. It’s also unlikely that a deck will suddenly become a great metagame call and you’ll miss out on it.

This also means that there are a lot of decks you have to test against, which makes it hard to change to a deck last minute and be proficient with it.

Say that I decide to pick up Lantern. I kind of have to know what’s going on against more than 10 different matchups. Then I try picking up Humans, and that’s another 10 different matchups. In Standard, the grid of “knowing everything” is 5×5—there will be 25 matchups you have to play. For Modern, it’s 10×10 or 15×15, which means that you will simply not have time to prepare for everything if you don’t choose a deck very early on. People who have a deck and stick to it have been playing that deck for years, and that’s the only way they are able to have sideboard plans against a deck that is 1% of the field.

Legacy

Legacy is in a weird space between Modern and Standard. A lot of Legacy players think Legacy is a “know your deck” format, like Modern, which makes some sense. It’s also a non-rotating format with many viable decks. But, ultimately, I disagree. I think Legacy is much more of a “know Magic” format than a “know your deck” format. You will do well if you’re a good player who is a specialist with a deck, of course, but you do not have to be an expert with your deck like you often have to in Modern. If you look at the Top 8s of Legacy tournaments, you will find deck experts—people like Thomas Enevoldsen with Death and Taxes or Jarvis Yu with Lands—but you will also find many pros who have never played a match of Legacy before.

I think that part of this is because a lot of Legacy decks are similar in what they’re trying to do, which makes it easier to group them. The hardest part for many Legacy decks is managing cards like Brainstorm and Force of Will, but there are so many decks that play those that you don’t need to have played that specific deck to acquire this skill set. Imagine someone who has never played Grixis Delver or Czech Pile before, but they’ve played Miracles, Shardless Bug, and Esper-Blade. This person is not going to need a lot of time with the Grixis Delver or Czech Pile deck to become proficient because the hard part of playing those decks they already understand from playing several other blue decks. Most Legacy decks are blue, and most blue decks are similar to each other in the things that are hard (which isn’t to say some decks aren’t different, but I think this mostly applies for the format as a whole).

If you’re playing a combo deck, then you don’t necessarily have to know what everyone else is doing. Obviously it helps, but it’s different than in Modern where it’s almost a requirement. You can group your opponent’s deck as “Force of Will deck” or “non-Force of Will deck,” for example, and if you have an idea how to play against both, then you’re going to be fine. You’ll never think “oh no, R/U/G Delver—now I have no idea what to name with Cabal Therapy because I’ve only played against Grixis Delver.” You’ll name Force of Will because that’s just what stops your combo.

So I would say that Legacy is a format that supports both styles. If you want to stick to a deck, you’ll be able to. The metagame doesn’t change much and nothing rotates. You can play the same Legacy deck for ten years without a problem. But if you don’t have a style, then you’ll also probably be fine if you’re generally good at Magic and you’ve played the format at least a little bit. You won’t be playing at the 100% that you might have if you were an expert with a deck, but you can play at 95% and that’s good enough.

Limited

Remember when I said that Standard was the format that punished you the most for sticking to a style? I lied. That’s Limited. I know several people who have a style in Limited—they like to build aggressive decks or control decks, or even gimmicky decks—and this is something you should avoid at all costs. In Limited, there’s just too much variation, not only from format to format but even from Draft to Draft or Sealed to Sealed. What do you do if your style is aggro and you open a Nicol Bolas? Do you just pass it? That’s a huge mistake.

If you are going to have preconceived notions, then they have to be about the format specifically—things like “In Zendikar the games are too fast, so I can’t take 7-drops.” They can’t be something like, “I like to play aggro, so I can’t take 7-drops” because at some point you’ll play Rise of the Eldrazi where 7-drops are great, and then you won’t have any idea what to do.

The biggest example I have of this is Luis Scott-Vargas. Luis is one of the best players in history, but for a long time his Limited performance didn’t match his Constructed performance because he just liked control decks too much. When he was faced with a fast format, he didn’t adapt, and he would still take Hexplate Golems to put in his deck. Once he adjusted his train of thought and became more open, he started winning more in Limited.

TL;DR

You should lean toward playing the best deck if:

  • You want to improve in the long term
  • You’re playing Standard or Limited
  • Your style of deck is noticeably worse than other decks
  • The best deck is easy to pick up or similar to what you already play

You should lean toward sticking to your style if:

  • You have short-term goals
  • You’re playing Modern
  • Your deck isn’t the best, but the best deck isn’t the best by a lot and yours is close to it in power level
  • The best deck is too complicated or too different from what you’re used to and you’re short on time