How to (Not) Fail at Deck Selection
I’ve played a lot of major events in my years playing Magic competitively. I’ve been fortunate enough to be handed outrageously good decklists, like Lucas Siow’s B/G Devotion deck with Nissa Worldwaker for the WMCQ I won. I’ve built decks that were solid for an event, like Glorybringer Mardu with Dispossess in an Aetherworks Marvel metagame. I’ve also registered Demonic Pact at a Pro Tour.
I’m writing this on my way home from Grand Prix Washington – or more accurately, Grand Prix Chantilly, VA – where I chalked up another mark on the Demonic Pact failure scoreboard. I played Jeskai God Pharaoh’s Gift at this event, committing a major sin when it comes to Standard GPs: I played last week’s deck. Let’s take a look at what I did wrong, why I did it, and look at some examples of when things went better to learn from them.
First off, what exactly is Jeskai Gift? It’s a graveyard centric combo deck that looks to fill its yard with creatures quickly to cheat Gift into play with Gate of the… Gate to the… what is it again? Underworld? Afterlife? Something like that. It’s undeniably powerful, and more consistent than decks like it tend to be, but suffers the unfortunate problem of being disruptable on multiple fronts. Counterspells like Negate, artifact removal like Abrade, and graveyard hate like Scavenger Grounds all make it so that God Pharaoh’s Gift doesn’t get to return a hasty 6/6 Angel of Invention.
Jeskai Gift, Daniel Fournier
This isn’t to say that it’s a bad deck. It performed admirably in the hands of some of the best players in the world at the last Standard Grand Prix, and has been winning since that on Magic Online. Standard moves quickly these days, however, and the metagame at a GP will be prepared for any linear deck. Just because it missed top 8 at the last event doesn’t mean the average player didn’t notice what deck Owen Turtenwald played, and just because you played against B/G Delirium six times on MODO doesn’t mean you’ll receive any more than your ordained two byes at the GP.
I committed a cardinal sin by underestimating the thought processes of the average Grand Prix player. I thought that they would take Brad Nelson’s exceptional Temur list and simply play that with a few tweaks to make it worse. Assuming that those players wouldn’t look at the rest of the new metagame to adjust their decks was foolish of me. I lost a game against Temur Black today where my opponent played a turn 4 Scarab God against me, and when I Thought-Knot Seer’d him on my turn, I saw a hand of Abrade, Negate, Dispossess. I knew at that moment that choosing to disrespect the format’s ability to adapt to an easily hated-out deck was an absurdly poor decision.
This has been different in the past, however. When Rally the Ancestors decks were crushing the Jeskai Black Standard format, the quality of hate cards against them was low. Kalitas, Traitor of Ghet was powerful, but slow and countered by Reflector Mage. Anafenza, the Foremost suffered from the same weakness – these hate cards were naturally defeated by cards that the combo deck wanted to play already. Other forms of graveyard hate like Cranial Archive were just outrageously bad, so when people started playing those, I manoeuvred my sideboard to add Siege Rhinos in addition to the Anafenzas for the mirror. That way, when Jeskai Black would overboard for me, I’d pivot on the play into an odd aggressive strategy and shut them out.
I tried to replicate this somewhat with the Gift list I played this weekend, which was based off a Magic Online list by Andrew Baeckstrom. Anafenza and Siege Rhino were replaced by Thought-Knot Seer and Chandra, Torch of Defiance. It’s likely that I got caught up in how much I love transformational sideboards in combo decks and neglected to realize that the hate cards for my deck don’t cost my opponents a significant amount of resources to play. Scavenger Grounds is as close to free as a card gets, and Abrade can still kill my dorks, while Negate still takes care of Chandra. Let’s also not pretend that Trophy Mage is a comparable card to Reflector Mage.
Now that we’ve covered the nitty gritty of my failed reasoning for this weekend, let’s look at a few positive examples, starting with the most recent SCG Invitational. Humblebrags ahead.
The Invitational has a tournament structure similar to the Pro Tour. We play 16 rounds of Swiss across two formats, and a record of 12-3-1 is usually the cutoff for top 8. This means you need a win percentage of loosely 75% in the Swiss – ostensibly lower than the 13-2 record needed at a GP, or the 7-1-1 record needed at large Swiss events. This in turn means that, assuming you’re an above average player in the room, you’re incentivized to minimize the variance caused by your deck selection. There’s an old joke that Jund is an x-2 deck – it’s always one win away from a good record. I registered Mardu Vehicles in Standard and Grixis Shadow in Modern, two decidedly slightly above average decks. I took some losses, but won the expected amount with my consistent, medium decks, enough to sneak into top 8.
Deck selection for that tournament was easy. There were a few curveballs, notably the rise of UW Monument deck in Standard, but the formats were mostly solved and the best decks were known quantities. In those situations, and especially in a tournament where you have several losses to give before being knocked out, picking a strong deck, building it well, and being experienced with it are much better propositions than trying to break the format.
There are, however, times where you need to win an unreasonable number of matches to win a tournament, and a known metagame exists to break. GPs tend to fall more under that category, assuming you’re fishing for a top 8 finish rather than fighting it out for spare pro points. Brad Nelson and the rest of Genesis did it this weekend in Washington by bringing White Eldrazi to a room of Red, Temur, and Gift. I’m nowhere close to that level of mastery, but I can’t speak as to their thought process, so I’ll describe my own personal experience.
Going into Grand Prix Montreal this year, everyone knew that Aetherworks Marvel was the deck to beat, but mostly the deck to play. It had no actual bad matchups, and certainly deserved the ban it eventually got. The best players were winning by building their decks to play a control game in the mirror, with Torrential Gearhulks and a myriad of answers to Marvel, like Negate and Ceremonious Rejection. We’ve already discussed my obsession with transformative sideboard plans, so you shouldn’t be surprised that I was bringing out 4 Marvels, 4 Woodweaver’s Puzzleknots, and 4 Ulamogs for a pile of Tireless Trackers, Longtusk Cubs, Confiscation Coups and counterspells. I remember attacking for lethal in a game 3 against Alexander Hayne when he showed me a hand of Natural Obsolescence, Ceremonious Rejection, Ulamog. There were, of course, no targets for those spells in my deck.
I definitely cheesed people out in that tournament, and while it worked out well for me, winning a flight to Kyoto, it could only happen because of the solved nature of the metagame. In both the earlier Rally example, and in this one, I maneuvered around defined, known, solved metagames to gain edges, while this was simply not the world I was trying to cheese out with Thought-Knot Seer.
Let’s get real. I’m not Brad Nelson. You’re not Brad Nelson. Deck selection and deckbuilding is very hard for people like us. We’re probably not going to break it. Don’t do what I did. You’re better off playing a stock deck well than trying to cheese out an undefined but developed format. This Standard is great because of this, and while this format is over for me, I can’t wait to see what Ixalan brings.