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Magic is a huge game with endless ways to play and tens of thousands of individual game pieces. There are so many different formats and decks that there are not enough hours in the day to play them all. Luckily, we don’t have to play everything in order to be competitive and make the most out of each tournament opportunity.
Instead of looking at the big picture, it makes a lot of sense to narrow your focus, and specialize in one skill set.
Over the winter I decided that I wanted to get into Pauper, and I had a strategy to do it. Every time I played, I selected a different deck until I had sampled the format from many angles.
While I think that was a fun and useful way to learn about a format in the abstract, it didn’t put me into a position where I ever felt like I was on the cutting edge of the format. I’ve recently narrowed my focus to just a few decks, and my win percentage and ability to tune my decks have increased as a result.
Simply, Magic is too big, and that’s a good thing—it means we never get too bored. There’s always something else to do or to try.
There is so much information floating around, and the formats and metagames change so regularly that it’s difficult to stay on top of everything and adapt accordingly.
I’m not saying to specialize as an excuse not to pay attention in class. The story is so large and complicated that there are advantages to keeping problems digestible.
What is your best deck in the format you play the most? Wouldn’t you be better served winning matches playing that deck in that format than something else?
I’ve noticed a trend over the past year or so among the players who regularly attend weekly tournaments at my LGS. In particular, they’ve gotten good at what they play through tons of practice. The most difficult pairings are the those who play the same format and same deck, week in and week out.
If your goal is to win more at larger events, narrowing your focus may be the best area to invest your energy.
Why Specialize Now?
Magic changes constantly, but three trends have emerged over the past few years:
Your Opponents are Better Informed
There is more information available than ever. Between coverage, results, and content, the average player knows more information than ever before because that information is more easily disseminated.
Why does this make specializing good?
In a world where everybody knows more information, it becomes harder to know more or be better than a random opponent. What you can do is know more about playing individual matchups with a specific deck than others, especially against opponents who are not as specialized with their deck as you are.
Metagames Change Slowly and Only Slightly
The widely played formats have a tendency to settle into established metagames that don’t change too dramatically over long periods of time.
Why does this make specializing good?
Players don’t get punished for sticking with the same deck. Rather, they are rewarded for making minor adaptations with a solid deck to meet the changing field.
Especially in formats like Legacy and Modern, where there are dozens of great deck choices, the experience players have with the format and with their deck is often what decides closely contested games. The player who has been grinding their Modern or Legacy weapon on MTGO or at the LGS for seven months has a huge advantage over the player who only has a week’s worth of repetitions under their belt.
On rare occasions, a player can get punished for staying the course (bannings, new printing), but the rewards stack exponentially over time.
Standard is different in that it changes more than older formats. But after a week or two, the major players of the format tend to be known commodities:
We know that Standard metagames tend to be cyclical when the format is not oppressed by broken decks that require bannings. U/W wrecks an event. Then B/R gets tuned to beat U/W and wrecks an event. Then whatever beats B/R does well. And then U/W comes back and beats the deck that beat the deck that beat it two weeks ago.
As players jump from one deck of the week to the next and build the lists that did well the week before, the savvy players are staying one step ahead of curve by inventing the next level of the metagame in a fairly predictable way.
Here’s the thing: Even when B/R has its big weekend and becomes the new deck to beat, there will still be U/W and G/B in the mix. In particular, it is the specialists with these archetypes that are leading the pack.
The key is that even in a week where U/W is a bad choice, it’s always a fine choice as long as a specialist has made adjustments to correctly counteract what is likely to happen next.
Formats that change most reward specialization least, but even in those scenarios, specialization may still be a better choice for the majority of players than bouncing around, especially for players who don’t have the luxury of grinding 30 hours of Magic in a week!
Team Formats Reward Specialization
With team events being all the rage this spring, it makes specializing even better since players don’t need to practice as many formats in order to prepare for events.
Why does this make specializing good?
It should be pretty obvious that the best possible team for a Constructed Trio event is a Legacy specialist, a Modern specialist, and a Standard specialist. Such a configuration is much, much better than three Modern ringers, etc.
The advent of team events makes it a great time to be a specialist since there is no shortage of events to play! I got to play Legacy in three Grand Prix this year, which is more than I’ve ever played thanks to the team format.
Historically, one of the biggest drawbacks of specialization was simply finding events to play. What’s the point of being a Delver Legacy specialist when there’s only a handful of meaningful events to play in a calendar year? Not much. But putting in those Legacy reps feels like a better use of time when there are Team Trios events all over the board.
Team Constructed also rewards specialization by not requiring players to practice formats they are not really into. For instance, Standard is my least favorite Magic format. It’s a fine format and it has gotten much better since Dominaria, but it doesn’t excite me. In past team events, I needed to spend time practicing Standard in order to be ready for individual Grand Prix. Now I can just team up with a Standard specialist, let them do their thing, and focus on playing the decks and formats I’m actually interested in.
I’ve had teammates ask me the following question a lot:
“Should I play, X, Y, or Z?” My response was always the same:
“What deck do you have the most experience with?”
“I’ve played them all a fair amount.”
“Still, which one do you have the most experience with?”
I had an interesting conversation before the last Grand Prix where my teammate answered that he thought he could play them all well, which was true, and I believed him. My response was:
“I don’t think that you’d make bad plays with any of these decks in games. But when it comes to sideboarding, there are a lot of margins to be gained. There are roughly 40 decks to know how to sideboard against, and know how they are sideboarding against you. Which deck do you have the most experience with, because I believe that is where the margins are.”
The slogan for Pokemon is “Gotta Catch ‘Em All!” But in my experience, catching them all is just a distraction. Basically, there are only a handful of monsters worth leveling up to battle with and the rest just sit on the bench in the Pokedex and rarely do much good.
In competitive Magic, specializing may well be the way of the future. It’s good news, since it means players are incentivized to play their favorite decks and their favorite formats more.