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Four Things Every Player Must Learn

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Today, we are going to take a bit of a break from discussing specific decklists and take a trip down the rabbit hole of some TCG Theory. While this hole goes far and deep today we are going to focus on four key points that are critical to every TCG player:

  • Tuning Decks
  • Brewing Decks
  • Sideboarding
  • Deck Selection

Let’s dive in, shall we?

Tuning Established Decks

In competitive Magic, while starting from scratch can be fun, more often than not we will be looking to make changes to established archetypes. It is important to remember when starting with an existing decklist that most of the cards included in that deck are there for a reason. Too often I see people wanting to shove random cards into a deck they are playing without having good reasons for doing so.

When thinking about adding a new card to an established deck ask yourself the following questions:

What does this new card do? Not “what is the actual text of the card”, but what does it do in the context of your deck?

What matchup are you hoping to change / improve by adding this card?

Which card that you are already playing is worse than this card?

How does this change affect your sideboarding? Does it fill a similar role to the card it replaced?

If you cannot reasonably answer all of the above questions, I would be wary about making the change you are considering making.

Key Takeaways: Don’t make changes just for the sake of making changes. Have a reason for doing so.

Brewing New Decks

While tuning decks can be fun, starting with a blank sheet of paper can also be a good time. Figuring out the puzzle of 75 new cards that form a cohesive shell is one of the best things about playing Magic.

A quote I have grown to love says:

“If you are not failing then you are not innovating enough”

While I am not sure who exactly was the first to say these words, they are powerful words to live by for anyone who wants to be a creator of anything. They very much apply to the game that I know and love — Magic the Gathering.

When it comes to exploring new territory many people do not understand (or often forget) that for every great success someone has, there are dozens of failures that you likely never saw. For every brew that makes its way into a Top 8, there are dozens more that never made it past being proxy decks on the cutting room floor, and hundreds more that never made it past being scribbles on pieces of paper that got thrown away.

I think one of my biggest breakthroughs as a player and deck-builder in Magic was when I realized that just because I was successful with a particular deck does not mean that said deck is optimal. To go along with this same line of thinking, it is important to realize that other people have success with similarly bad decks fairly often as well. Just because a deck put up a high finish in (or even won) a major event does not mean it is anywhere near optimal.

Because Magic is a game that has variance by design, it is important to recognize that variance goes both ways. Just like it is possible for a good player with an optimal deck to do very poorly in an event, it is very possible for a mediocre player with a bad deck to do well. The reality often ends up being varying shades of grey and it is important to remember to take single results with a grain of salt.

Key Takeaways: Expect to fall short when working on new ideas. Failure is the first step toward success.

Sideboarding Fundamentals

People love sideboarding guides. They allow you to turn your brain off and just follow lists that are formatted along the lines of:

VS Storm

Out: 4 Lightning Bolt

In: 2 Flusterstorm, 2 Pyroblast

While these are convenient when you are first picking up a decklist, in the long term they can do the reader a disservice by leaving them unprepared when they eventually make changes to the decklist they are playing. Changing even a single card, or god forbid, multiple cards, leaves a sideboard guide out in the cold most of the time.

What is an ideal way to approach sideboarding, you ask? While there is not some type of magic formula for understanding why every card is in every Magic deck, there is one thing I have found that helps me not only construct better decks / sideboards, but also sideboard more efficiently:

Think about your deck as 75 cards, not 60 and 15.

Something In / Out lists encourage you to do is think about your main deck and sideboard as different pieces as opposed to them all being a part of the deck you are playing at a given event.

I have said a couple of times now deck-building concepts are very closely related to sideboarding, the reason for this is that sideboarding is essentially an extension of deck-building. When you reach for your sideboard between two games in a match, you are essentially asking yourself:

“How I can build the best 60 card deck using the 75 cards I have registered?”

As an exercise, pull out a deck you have that you enjoy playing and lay out all 75 cards in front of you. Then go through a list of common matchups that you expect to play with that deck. For each of these matchups, pull aside cards from your 75 that you do not want in this matchup.

Not only will this exercise help you to think about how you are tuning your deck post board for different matchups, but it will also help you see if your deck is built correctly. If you find you have 62 cards you like in your 75 for one matchup, but only 58 cards you like in your 75 for another matchup, then you can cut two from the 62 to flesh out the 58.

I have found, when I run up against something I am unfamiliar with in an event, doing this in real time is often easier than directly considering ins and outs. Putting all 75 cards in one pile and then cutting 15 is often easier than making 1 for 1 swaps.

Key Takeaways: Your deck is one 75 card entity, not two different 60 and 15 cards entities. Treat it as such.

Selecting the Right Deck

While there is plenty of playskill involved in the actual games of Magic you play in any event, another important place where skill comes into play is in selecting the correct deck. Selecting a deck that gives you the best possible chance to win a given event is just as important as tuning that deck to perfection and playing it well during the event.

One trap I see players fall into when selecting decks in Magic is trying to metagame too much. For those unfamiliar, in the context of a TCG, the “metagame” refers to the composition of decks you expect to play at any given event. If your goal is to have a strong finish at any given event, you want to select a deck that is going to be “well positioned” against the decks you expect to play against.

This concept of metagaming often causes players to make poor card and deck choices — especially in older formats like Modern and Legacy. Too often, when I talk about a deck like Grixis Delver being the best deck in Legacy, I get met with a barrage of comments that deck X has a good matchup against Grixis Delver.

While it may be true that a given deck has a good, or even great, matchup against a perceived best deck, having a few harder matches does not dethrone the best deck. A deck is often considered the “best” when it has favorable matchups against a majority of the expected field. This means that even if the best deck struggles against one or two matchups, it is often still correct to play it rather than something that can beat the best deck because of how the weaker deck lines up against things that are not the best deck.

Expanding on the Legacy example above – rg Lands is a deck that has a strong matchup against Grixis Delver. What the Lands deck does not have a strong matchup against, however, are the various fast combo decks that tend to be popular in Legacy like Storm, Sneak & Show, and Reanimator. Because Legacy is so diverse, having a strong matchup against Grixis Delver — which is often less than 10% of the field — is not enough to give you a huge edge if you are likely to struggle against a larger portion of the field playing fast and fringe combo decks.

In contrast, while trying to metagame diverse formats like Modern and Legacy is often incorrect, metagaming in Standard is often a good idea. Take our current Standard format — the top tables at any given event are likely to be mostly Energy and Mono Red strategies. This means that if you can make it out of the first few rounds with a deck that has strong matchups against both Temur and Mono Red, you are likely to have a successful tournament. If I was going to try and metagame a Standard event my weapon of choice would be Willy Edel’s wg Aggro deck:


Key Takeaways: Metagaming diverse formats is often wrong. Metagaming narrow formats is ideal.

Wrapping Up

While the topics I covered here are obviously far deeper than I can explore fully in a single post, I think I was able to touch on some key things for each of them that will hopefully help folks improve their game! For those of you out there looking for the cliffnotes version, the Key Takeaways from today are:

  • Don’t make changes to an existing decklist just for the sake of making changes. Have a reason for doing so.
  • Expect to fall short when brewing new deck ideas. Failure is the first step towards success.
  • Your deck is one 75 card entity, not two different 60 and 15 card entities. Treat it as such.
  • Metagaming diverse formats is often wrong. Metagaming narrow formats is ideal.

Have a question or comment on something that I covered above? Let me know in a comment below!

Cheers,

—Jeff Hoogland


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