A selection of Magic cards

Maybe the best deck is in here somewhere...

You hear it all the time, people talking about what the best deck in a given format is.  It's Faeries.  It's Jund.  It's Thopter Depths.  It's U/G Goyf.  It's Affinity.  It's Vengevine Survival.  It's this and that and every format tends to have one or two decks that rise to the top and get called the 'best deck'.  It's the deck the best players in your area want to play at the PTQ to win and get the blue envelope.  It's the deck the pros talk about on ChannelFireball and StarCityGames and TCGPlayer, either telling you how they would have built and played the best deck three weeks ago, or what decks they're brewing to beat the best deck consistently.  It's the deck MTGSalvation forum posters hate because it's a netdeck and they think that netdecking is stripping all the creativity out of the game while they 2-2 their FNMs with their all Rebecca Guay deck.  It's the deck you pick up, playtest a bit, and head out to the PTQ with, only to lose to a matchup the pros told you was favorable, and get smoked in the mirror, since, hey, a lot of people are playing the best deck.  In his fantastically snarky article on StarCityGames, Max McCall said:

Look. It doesn't matter what deck you play at the PTQ. It doesn't matter how well you think it's positioned, or how good all of the matchups are. You're not going to win the PTQ. You're going to get mana-screwed in round four, then you're going to make a small, subtle mistake in round six that ends up costing you the match.

Then you're going to watch some drooling moron win the whole thing while making five mistakes per turn as his final practice before he goes off to try out for a position as an NFL punter. You're going to go out to dinner, grumble about justice, and go home, already brewing for the next tournament.

While Max was being somewhat sarcastic and over the top with his analysis, there are some things to take away from this:

  • Winning a PTQ is hard.  It takes a mixture of skill, good luck on your part, and bad luck on the part of others.  Finding sick technology or 'the best deck' helps, but it is far from the only thing that matters.  Playing lots of Magic, finding ways to minimize the mistakes you make and capitalize on the mistakes opponents make no matter the deck or situation, those are the skills that help minimize the amount of luck you need to get through a tournament.
  • Magic is a game filled with variance.  Even if you do everything right, find 'the best deck' for your metagame, test the crap out of it, play a lot, can play just about every situation blindfolded, disguise your tells, and prepare the best you can, you can still lose to your best matchup and get knocked out of the tournament.  One winner out of 150-200 people.  One winner.  That's all there is in a PTQ, and that leaves the rest of the field griping about deck choice, how they got lucksacked by that 'noob', how they had to mulligan every match, etc.
  • Someone has to be that 'drooling moron' that wins the tournament, so give yourself the best chance to capitalize on all the luck and variance and be sitting at the final table at the end of the night.

How does this all tie in with the concept of 'the best deck'?  The best chance you have to make the most of any luck that comes your way is to be familiar with the format and with your deck.  When I played at Pro Tour Valencia, I was familiar with my deck, but I over-thought the format, and ended up paying dearly for it.  Thinking I was going to be two steps ahead of everyone else, I ended up a step behind.  Similarly, at the National Qualifiers this past year, I was familiar with the format, but not all that familiar with the deck I had chosen to play or my role in each matchup, which led me to play slower and pick up an early draw.

Getting Familiar With the Format - Finding 'The Best Deck'

The more colors in your spreadsheet, the more effective it is.

You have to look at results and see what decks are currently popular in the format and the changes in those archetypes from week to week during the paper PTQ season and event to event on MTGO Daily and Premier Events.  Have a system to organize the data with some level of sanity (the dreaded spreadsheet works out well here) and don't necessarily look at winners, but top 8s, 3-1s in Daily Events, top 16/32 in Premier Events, etc.  Once you figure out what deck you're going to play, then tune it to win an 8-man single elimination event, but you have to figure out what deck will give you the best chance of getting to that top 8 first.

Ignoring the small sample size issues early in the season (that you and every other grinder are going to have to deal with), one of three things is going to come out of the data:

  • One archetype is putting up better results than any other.  Congratulations!  This will probably be the most popular deck at your PTQ and hate against that deck will be heavy as well.
  • One small group of archetypes is putting up better results than others, but no one deck in that group stands out.  These decks are good starting points for your testing, and niche decks that look to beat the one big archetype might not be as valid as if there was a true single 'best deck'.  In all likelihood, though, one of those decks is better than the others, and players that put in a lot of playtesting time will realize this and gain an edge by playing a superior deck in a format where there's not enough room to hate out that deck because there are multiple decks that will be popular.
  • The distribution of results is such that there's no real outlier on the positive side - there might be seven or eight archetypes posting similar results, but not a whole lot better than the field as a whole.  This means one of three things typically; either the sample size is too small to really establish any separation in the format; the format is open and waiting for a 'best deck' to be discovered; or there really is no 'best deck' in the format and all of those archetypes are viable and thriving.  That opens things up - can you and your testing group break the format and find the angle to attack the format others have missed?

Most likely, you'll find the format falls under the first or second scenario, giving you an idea of what the best deck or decks might be.

Dissecting 'The Best Deck'

If you have a deck or decks you're targeting as popular in the format because of results, it's time to get to know those decks, and the plans those decks use to win games.  Goldfish the deck(s), play them against other stock lists.  How does the 'best deck' play against aggressive strategies?  Control?  Combo?  If you're planning on beating the deck, you have to know what tools are appropriate for the situation, and you can't do that until you have a solid grasp on the deck's core strategies in each situation.  A strong control deck may be great when it gets to play control, but what happens if it plays a deck that has long-game inevitability, thanks to a card like Urzas Factory or Academy Ruins?  How does the 'best' beatdown deck do when the opponent goes turn 1 Flagstones of Trokair, Steppe Lynx, turn 2 Path to Exile your first creature, Flagstones again, fetch up two Sacred Foundrys, turn 3 Arid Mesa, Searing Blaze your next creature?  How do the best decks handle when the opponent plays a Pyromancer Ascension?  Knowing what the 'best deck' will do in those situations will help you prepare, no matter which side of the matchup you're on.

Understand the Mirror

Bituminous Blast

The Jund mirror match was highly skill based.

If you do decide that the most popular deck in the format is right for you, you need to know the mirror match inside and out.  How does the game shift as certain cards are played?  What differences are there in the decklists in this archetype that are better or worse for the mirror match?  Is it just the Jund on Jund mirror match where the person that cascades best wins?  It's not enough to know how the 'best deck' plays against itself, you have to know how the deck plays against itself, since you have to expect a lot of people will be playing 'the best deck' too.  Learning the ins and outs of the mirror match can pay dividends - look at Carlos Romao's performance at 2002 Worlds where he better understood the mirror match involving the 'best deck', Psychatog.

Take a Different Approach

Maybe you don't have hours upon hours to test the 'best deck' against the mirror and figure out how to extract every last bit of advantage from each card in your deck.  Instead, you're going to play a deck that you think beats up on the 'best deck' without sacrificing too much in other matchups.  Finding one of the top decks or a deck on the tier slightly below the best, or even a homebrew you've been working on, you'll need to play against 'the best deck' and find out what your deck needs to do to win, what spells are most important in the matchup, and how aggressive or defensive you should be.  Your deck has to have a plan, and the plan has to be competent.  If the plan is 'destroy all their lands', but the best deck is filled with one- and two-drops, you're going to look miserable crushed under a wave of weenies holding onto a grip of Stone Rains.  Figure out what your deck does, and why what it does is good against 'the best deck', and how to best push the advantage of what your deck does in the face of variance.

'Beating' Variance No Matter What You Play

So then we go back to that troublesome opponent of everyone, variance.  Sometimes your deck is going to serve up a mana-screw surprise or flood you like there's no tomorrow.  Sometimes your opponent will have the nut draw.  If the blue envelope is the draw to your PTQ day, then there's only going to be one winner, and everyone else is tied for last place.  What to do about it, though?  Your deck should have the ability to do something even through mana flood (repeatable on-board effects, creature lands, etc.), mana screw (cheap disruptive spells like Thoughtseize, Leonin Arbiter or a torrent of low-cost creatures and burn), and have the ability to punish bad draws.  You have to have a deck that can appropriately take advantage when variance swings your way, and your opponent is the one griping about his two spell, ten land draw.  And you have to have a deck with the right sideboard tools not only for the 'best deck', but for other popular decks.  Even after all that, though, you still might not get there.  You might miss out on the top 8, or you might go 0-2, or you might get to the finals, only for the opponent to vomit out their hand and smash you before you even get into the game.  Sick Saturday, right?  It's that pesky small sample size again.  On any given Saturday, any deck with a relevant plan can take down a PTQ.  The 'best deck' will take down more than most, but that guy playing that deck people didn't really respect?  He might get there.  Someone's gotta be the drooling moron.  So pick a deck you like, get to know it inside and out, know what the popular 'best deck' is going to be, and prepare to beat it and its friends.  And even if you don't, you need to evaluate things differently.  It's not a failure if you don't get the blue envelope.  If you prepared correctly, played well, and just got unlucky, you shouldn't throw the deck out on its ear as a failure.  One's PTQ's sample size isn't enough to discard any deck with a relevant plan.  If you find out your plan's no longer relevant though...

In conclusion, you don't need to play the best deck to do well at a PTQ, but you better know what the best deck is, how it wins games, and how the deck you're choosing to play can beat it.  Just remember that even if you don't do well at the PTQ, that doesn't necessarily mean your deck is bad and you should feel bad.  Just keep testing and grinding and with luck, success will come to you.