The Deck You Read About and the Deck You Played

You read the wisest Pro’s latest article about the hottest new deck. You watched a few videos and played at the LGS on Tuesday night. You went full-on 14th-century monk with that hand-copied transcription of the complete and unabridged sideboard guide to consult in between games.

Saturday rolled around and you went 4-3. Blah. Another one bites the dust.

Today’s article is about the gap of time between when the author wrote that article and when you submitted your deck list at the player meeting at the Grand Prix or RPTQ, and what you can do to have the best possible 75 sleeved up for battle the next time around.

Magic Articles and Basic Literary Theory

There is a myth in the Magic community that reading articles will give you an edge.

I say myth because it only provides an edge over those who didn’t read the article. Individuals who are likely in the same boat as you (trying to qualify for the PT) likely read all of the same articles you did. How does reading the same content as 95% of opponents give you an advantage? If anything, staying on top of the content simply keeps you from lagging behind the crowd.

I’m sorry that last paragraph might be a little depressing… I’m reading all of these articles and only treading water! Don’t worry, the rest of the article is filled with strategies for how to actually get a usable edge from the content you read.

Reading Magic content in preparation for a tournament is a lot like a literature class where the assigned reading is Moby Dick. Simply reading the source material, Moby Dick, does not guarantee you some huge edge over the other students if your goal is to get top marks on your final thesis. You will undoubtedly be a step ahead of students who didn’t bother to read the book and are going to try to wing it, or students who only read the Wikipedia page. So you basically have an advantage over the percentage of the class who are set up to fail…

What will get you an A is to go beyond the text and do some research of your own. You might look at what other scholars have written about Moby Dick. You might do some research into the historical or cultural background from or about the time and place the novel was written.

Moby Dick has a lot in common with any tier I Magic deck and not just the fact that trying to find a way to beat either one is enough to drive a person to madness… both have been discussed and written about ad nauseam and in order to find a new angle or approach to either you’ll need to do some research of your own.

In Magic, the end result of comprehension isn’t performed by writing a term paper—your understanding of the material is tested by the deck you register and how well you play it over the weekend.

Once the Author Hits Send It’s Not Cutting Edge

In my opinion, the most dramatic way competitive Magic is different today, as opposed to five or ten years ago, is the amount of information the average tournament player consumes on a weekly basis.

The competition is much more difficult because the majority of opponents are better informed, have better decks, and are more prepared than they used to be. It’s harder to get a tangible edge on a week-by-week basis.

A couple of years ago I had a conversation about content with my friend Kyle Boggemes that changed the way I think about consuming content. The premise of the discussion was Kyle saying, “Brian, you should be reading more articles,” and me saying, “I don’t find them very useful.” I don’t need to read several paragraphs about why boarding out excessive removal in a control mirror is good. I don’t require a list of every possible Affinity creature I can 2-for-1 with Electrolyze.

My argument was: “In the same amount of time it would take me to read ten articles, I could compare 50 deck lists, and that has more value in terms of figuring out what’s going on.”

Kyle had a fantastic counterargument that changed the way I thought about using content to elevate my game. He said: “I don’t need the articles to teach me how to play my deck. I use the articles to learn how the hivemind will build their decks and sideboard against me next weekend.”

Straight-up game-changer.

If the new baseline for competitive edge (or, merely not lagging behind) is “I read the weekly articles and am ‘up to date’ with the recent trends, tech, and sideboard plans,” then the next level is to have a sense of what the articles suggest and to devise plans to exploit what the weekly content suggests players do on Saturday.”

Here’s an example of what I’m talking about from our Grand Prix Detroit testing with Jeskai versus Tron and KCI.

Many U/W lists had success the week before by not running Stony Silence in the board. The deck already crushes Affinity. Stony Silence is less effective against modular Affinity than traditional Affinity. Also, the hedge away from enchantment-based hate for Tron and KCI was a reaction to those decks jamming tons of Nature’s Claim post-sideboard, using other, non-enchantment based sideboard cards, like Ceremonious Rejection, to essentially blank Tron’s Nature’s Claims.

A lot of the U/W content praised the blank-their-Disenchant plan. A lot of the Tron content discussed Thragtusk plans with fewer Claims as a response to U/W playing Ceremonious Rejection instead of hateful artifacts and enchantments.

After reading six or seven articles on the subject, it was clear that there was a narrative about how to approach these matchups and we used that information to do something completely different: we overloaded on artifacts and enchantments for those matchups to punish the average player for skimping on Nature’s Claims (as the content for the week was suggesting players to do) and backed those hate cards up with Negates.

Once an idea is published on a major website, it isn’t cutting edge or secret tech anymore. The secret tech of not playing Stony Silence may have been a secret the week before, but once the results were published and people wrote about it, the cat was clearly out of the bag and that plan became the plan. We were able to exploit that thread of knowledge to gain an edge we would not have had if we played the stock U/W list with the stock U/W sideboard plan.

I’m not saying it’s bad to read articles and play a list that looks good to you. Choosing a well-positioned archetype and having a well thought-out build with good sideboard plans is pretty much necessary to do well in any competitive tournament these days, and any published list will give you the baseline to have a chance. Plenty of people have qualified for the PT by playing the 75 their favorite Pro wrote about the Tuesday before a GP.

But when you think about the people who win a lot and look at the lists that Top 8 Grand Prix, do they tend to be stock, or are they lists where the pilot has put some work into figuring out a few things? I would suggest that the latter is far more likely to translate into a great performance.

There is also truth to the idea that once a deck or idea has been written about and consumed by the readership that its relative effectiveness changes by virtue of becoming known rather than unknown. It’s sort of like the observer effect in physics that theorizes that particles may behave differently when they are observed than when they are not observed.

When a writer publishes a deck list, or when a deck has a breakout performance at an event, a large part of the success of that deck comes from being an unknown commodity to an opponent. If an opponent doesn’t know what is going on, what to play around, or how you will sideboard, it’s more difficult to anticipate what will happen next.

How many times have we seen a deck Top 8 a Pro Tour and it’s basically a dead duck by the next weekend after everybody has had a chance to read about it, test against it, and understand it better?

The Myth Quest of the Perfect Deck List

I learned a valuable lesson about deck building many years ago when I was playing a ton of Vintage. There wasn’t a ton of Vintage content available, so much of the way people learned and shared ideas about the the format and various decks was via forums and boards.

I noticed fairly early on that, for the top archetypes, there was a contingent working to find the perfect list. What is the perfect build of Gifts? What is the perfect list of Slaver? As though there was some kind of mathematical formula that would arrive at the conclusion that “this is the perfect 75.”

One of the neat things about Magic is that it changes every weekend. You might have secret tech this week, but by next week it’ll be old hat. You can never have the “perfect 75” because next week, a substantial percentage of the field will have devised a plan to beat it, and in two weeks everybody will have the plan to beat it. Back to the drawing board!

The articles you or I encounter every week are a lot like the search for the perfect deck in the sense that they were the perfect deck at the time the article was written, i.e., they were the best version with the best plans before anybody read them. A lot of the time, the lists that get the ink are ones that made Top 8 the weekend before, so clearly, the list was great last week with the element of surprise on its side.

Today’s article isn’t to bash on “netdecking.” It’s an observation that “netdecking” is the baseline floor of competitive tournaments. It’s actually rare in this day and age that a player will have anything less than a 75-card netdeck from a recent article at a competitive event.

Consider this and despair: “If you decide to lock in on the exact 75 the best player in the world said was the best deck in the format on Tuesday, by Saturday you might have a below average build.”

The best player in the world is likely correct that the build that they are writing about is the best at the time they write the article, but every person consuming content having several days to process, plan, and react to the deck changes its positioning in the metagame.

  • Your 75 is a known commodity.
  • Anybody who tested a plan tested it against the 75 you are playing.
  • People who did very little testing—they tested against what you are playing.
  • People will gravitate toward decks that beat “the best deck,” and they might not have considered that deck if it wasn’t getting so much hype.

I know that I said “consider and despair…” but the truth is that this is all great news for players who are willing to be creative and innovative. In a world where the baseline is netdecking a 75, the only area to actually gain an advantage is to invent your own tech, devise plans that beat the known plans, and exploit the fact that there is so much more copying than innovating taking place right now.

Finding the next level doesn’t mean going into outer-space and discovering a brand new element that nobody has ever seen before. In many cases, it’s more about reading the week’s content and getting a sense of how people are thinking and approaching the format you will play that weekend, and making adjustments to your deck and sideboard to counteract the hot strategic trends of the week.

Rather than copying a list the best player played the week before, we should be paying more attention to the types of changes they made and why they made those changes from the week before, and look to make similar types of metagame reads and adjustments right now.

It is clear to me that in a world of nearly absolute information parity that using it to predict future trends and devise trump plans is rapidly becoming one of the most critical skill sets in high-level play.

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