Most people I know just want to feel comfortable. People fear leaving their comfort zone and go to great lengths to stay there. For Magic players, this can be easily linked with their choice of deck for a given tournament.
Now there are upsides to sticking with something you know over trying out something that may be slightly better. As always the number one reason is reducing the losses that are caused purely by your own actions. What this tends to mean is you make better plays on the average, make better mulligan decisions and have a plan when sideboarding. There are other advantages, but those are the ones that tend to stand out the most. Today I want to cover some of the lesser talked about pros and cons.
Playing a large number of matches against a certain archetype is valuable, but always keep in mind the quality of your opponent. Consider the median red player against a truly excellent one. Many plays that are cut and dry against the average red aggro player are actually suboptimal.
The simplest example is in the red mirror match. One player will be better off taking a slower, defensive approach. Even in 75-card mirrors with the same starting hand, at some point the game will diverge and one player will be better off taking the less aggressive line. One of you is on the play and one is on the draw, so the player with the extra card has more incentive to stick with defense. This is obviously a simplification, but it really does come down to knowing your role.
So how do you know whether to be aggressive or defensive? The best way to know is by relying on past experience. The beauty of it is that you don’t need to be familiar with the specifics of your deck. Having played similar strategies and archetypes does wonders for your abilities to instantly understand how aggressive or defensive to play a hand. Competent aggro players don’t need to relearn how to play around [card]Wrath of God[/card] every time a new aggro deck comes out. They pick up over time the exact amount of resources they need to spend at a given time.
The primary way to pick this up is just by battling against skilled opponents. Playing against people who are better than you all the time can give you false impressions of how the match in an actual tournament setting plays out just as much as playing against subpar opposition non-stop.
Familiarity with The One True Deck
Sometimes there’s one deck that’s just better than everything else and it’s silly to spend time elsewhere when you could continue to maximize your experience with the single best option. The best example in recent times for this is Caw Blade, which dominated the tournament landscape for months and was still a respectable control strategy post-bannings.
I had very strong results with Caw Blade in the time leading up to its dominance in Standard, and during the months where it was the best deck and everyone knew it my win rate only dipped slightly. This was primarily because I had a time and experience advantage over the majority of opposing Caw players.
One of the most interesting examples I can remember is [card]Jace, the Mind Sculptor[/card], and how passively inexperienced Caw players would use him. For a good two months, people used his [card]Brainstorm[/card] ability almost exclusively. While this wasn’t a bad tactic, often it was suboptimal when they were only looking for a handful of cards and only digging 1-2 deeper on each activation. Meanwhile, I preferred to fateseal or bounce blockers out of the way to pressure opponents and waste their mana and draws.
Over time, using the +2 and aggressively fatesealing became more common, because more players knew which cards mattered. If you already found your [card]Squadron Hawk[/card]s and had a JTMS in play, there just wasn’t much else to dig for unless you were afraid of missing land drops. I only knew this mattered before other players because I had played Caw so much that I figured out what the most important cards and aspects of the mirror were.
I wasn’t alone in this development, and the best Caw players also figured out proper sequencing and got more out of their mana than I tended to. So, often the mirror was decided by skill. The less knowledge gaps you had, the better you performed. Familiarity with classic control helped, but I was consistently beating Magic players on MTGO that were more skilled at Magic in general because they had less specialized knowledge.
The same applies to powerful decks in formats full of other powerful decks. Sam Pardee playing Melira Pod in Modern for what feels like ages and Jacob Wilson sticking with RUG Delver in Legacy since the day he played the format are great examples of deck specialists winning a whole lot more than the percentages say they should.
In formats where there are so many choices, playing multiple decks only makes sense if you have a lot of spare time and a willingness to continually relearn certain aspects of Magic. You’ll gain a deeper understanding of certain matches and format knowledge in general, but you’d probably do better by focusing on one particular archetype (or at least category of decks) and playing the hell out of them.
Limited Time and Familiarity
Sticking with familiar decks works best when you have to select a deck only days before an event. I love learning a bunch of decks, because it helps broaden the scope of my knowledge (and articles), and it especially helps when matchups feel similar. Playing a whole lot of decks can give you a lot of small insights the average player takes for granted.
What it also does it make audibling a reasonable option. Here’s the thing about Magic, making the right decisions and playing a deck at 85% is good enough for the majority of tournaments. You may drop a game because you missed something small, but generally players lose games because they screw up something huge. Or get themselves killed before the tournament or game starts with their deck and sideboard decisions.
Caw Blade and Food Chain Goblins are likely the only two decks I’ve ever played where I felt I was playing them above 90% consistently. For a handful of pros, I think their base is about 75% and any real practice puts them in that sweet 85-90%. If you hand a white aggro deck to Paul Rietzl, he will likely play it at the same or higher level than nearly anyone else.
So the practicality of the situation is this: Those with limited time and resources are better off just battling with whatever brought them there. Unless a massive metagame shift has made the deck unplayable, if you’re confident in your abilities with a given deck, run it. If you’ve played a lot of different decks and haven’t really felt locked in on one, then it behooves you to at least pick one in a strategy that you have past experiences with.
You don’t instantly become bad when you switch to a similar deck, but the edges you have get smaller. You need to weigh the gains of the new archetype and its position or power versus your edges gained in familiarity with a deck. If you want to switch decks and receive the maximum benefit, you should take the time to get comfortable with it. In other words, if you can immediately switch and play at the competent level, that’s good. If you can afford to give yourself a couple of days of testing time to pick up the less intuitive branches of the deck (such as sideboarding), that’s ideal.
Your ability to shift strategies immediately with the metagame and pick up decks on the fly are by far the two best reasons to practice with multiple decks. If you’re more worried about getting technical skills in tune and especially if you want to practice a particular angle like sideboarding, then sticking with one deck for a long time is for the best. If you mostly play Standard, this also gives you an edge when the rotation rolls around once a year.
Right now I’ve mostly been focusing on playing red decks, as that’s all I didn’t sell off on Magic Online, but I played Mono-U Devotion this weekend and found a lot of similarities. Lots of sequencing crossover and base combat math, where the main differences lied in using [card]Nightveil Specter[/card] and [card]Jace, Architect of Thought[/card] correctly instead of leveraging burn spells. What tripped me up was sideboarding with the deck, since I had only played the deck a handful of times beforehand and wasn’t clear on what was important.
While I could play the deck at a functional level and even took a handful of lines that many would gloss over, I still failed to have a reasonable grasp of all the mechanics. I feel this illustrates both why it’s good to have practice with one or two specific decks and why you can’t just 10-game everything in the format and hope for the best. If you switch decks every week without a base to go back too, it can be very difficult for the average player to retain information, especially when swapping entire strategies instead of related decks.
That’s all for this week. Next week we’ll get back to Standard in preparation for SCG Oakland.