As many players know from experience, a player's result in a tournament or event is often heavily influenced before any games are actually played. The deck selection process in Magic: The Gathering is one of the most difficult aspects of the game, and can be even more difficult when the metagame hasn't been solved. It seems like up until very recently in most situations we had a primary deck or two to target in formats like Standard and Historic. With the most recent bans and additions to these formats, it has felt like we have been moving more toward a balanced and healthy spot.

Going into this past weekend for example, I was competing in the Zendikar Rising Championship. I didn't feel comfortable predicting what the most-played deck would be in Standard or Historic. There were too many variables, and it also felt hard to get too much of an edge with any one strategy. This can be a bit frustrating, but it just makes your preparation before the event that much more important.

Step 1: Identify a Balanced Metagame

The first part of the process is coming to the realization that the format is relatively balanced, with new strategies finding just as much success as the established decks.. No one archetype seems particularly dominant, and every week seemingly a different deck pops up and does well. This description fits the current Standard format pretty well.

Step 2: Understand Why the Metagame Is Balanced

This is much more difficult than step one, and is going to require some work to figure out. When there aren't one or two decks dominating the field, then that usually means that there isn't a deck out there that beats everything. It leads to a situation where every strategy has strengths and weaknesses. For instance, the most-played deck in the Zendikar Rising Championship for Standard was Gruul Aggro. That deck is favored against one of the top decks in Rogues, but is behind vs. one of the other primary top decks, Mono-Green Food.

If you have the ability to gather information on many of the top decks it will help to explain why the format has arrived in the spot that it has. It will also lead to the acceptance that any deck you choose is going to have some weaknesses. Once you know how decks match up against each other, it will allow you to make a much more educated decision.

Step 3: Capitalize on the Most Recent Trends

Magic players have a recency bias. They care more about beating the deck that did well last weekend than the one from a month ago. Players like playing new decklists even if they aren't necessarily more powerful than other options in a format. If you are able to identify that a deck is rising in popularity, and then can go back to your knowledge base from step two and make your choice based off this, it will be very beneficial in the long term.

Step 4: Remember Card Choices Are Just as Important as Deck Choice

This goes alongside step three, but choosing to adapt to recent trends doesn't always mean switching what you are playing entirely. Many times this step involves changing your decklist to make adaptations. This is why I don't fully trust when I hear statements like, "X deck has a 60% matchup against Y deck." This data can be off for many different reasons, one of them being that you can make changes to a deck, which will then lead to the data changing for the next tournament. Knowing data from a past tournament can be useful, but don't expect a matchup to play out the same way week after week.

Sometimes you just need to play the games yourself, before making assumptions about how a matchup plays out. My testing team this past weekend was under the assumption before we started playing that Esper Doom had a bad matchup against Temur Ramp. We assumed this by looking at the cards both decks were playing, and then seeing the data that had been gathered about the matchup. However, we were able to change a couple cards in the Esper deck, and this completely flipped the matchup to the point I think it can be one of Esper's best matchups. Take a look at my list:

Magic: The Gathering TCG Deck - Esper Doom by Seth Manfield

'Esper Doom' - constructed deck list and prices for the Magic: The Gathering Trading Card Game from TCGplayer Infinite!

Created By: Seth Manfield

Event:

Rank:

Standard

Market Price: $158.49

Cards

Mystical Dispute

Color Identity:U

Market Price: $0.92

ImageURL: https://tcgplayer-cdn.tcgplayer.com/product/198683_200w.jpg

This spell costs {2} less to cast if it targets a blue spell.
Counter target spell unless its controller pays {3}.

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Duress

Color Identity:B

Market Price: $0.02

ImageURL: https://tcgplayer-cdn.tcgplayer.com/product/248314_200w.jpg

Target opponent reveals their hand. You choose a noncreature, nonland card from it. That player discards that card.

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Skyclave Apparition

Color Identity:W

Market Price: $5.63

ImageURL: https://tcgplayer-cdn.tcgplayer.com/product/221860_200w.jpg

When Skyclave Apparition enters the battlefield, exile up to one target nonland, nontoken permanent you don't control with mana value 4 or less.
When Skyclave Apparition leaves the battlefield, the exiled card's owner creates an X/X blue Illusion creature token, where X is the mana value of the exiled card.

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Shark Typhoon

Color Identity:U

Market Price: $11.10

ImageURL: https://tcgplayer-cdn.tcgplayer.com/product/212133_200w.jpg

Whenever you cast a noncreature spell, create an X/X blue Shark creature token with flying, where X is that spell's mana value.
Cycling {X}{1}{U} ({X}{1}{U}, Discard this card: Draw a card.)
When you cycle Shark Typhoon, create an X/X blue Shark creature token with flying.

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Yorion, Sky Nomad

Color Identity:U,W

Market Price: $2.74

ImageURL: https://tcgplayer-cdn.tcgplayer.com/product/212715_200w.jpg

Companion — Your starting deck contains at least twenty cards more than the minimum deck size. (If this card is your chosen companion, you may put it into your hand from outside the game for {3} any time you could cast a sorcery.)
Flying
When Yorion enters the battlefield, exile any number of other nonland permanents you own and control. Return those cards to the battlefield at the beginning of the next end step.

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Golden Egg

Market Price: $0.08

ImageURL: https://tcgplayer-cdn.tcgplayer.com/product/198395_200w.jpg

When Golden Egg enters the battlefield, draw a card.
{1}, {T}, Sacrifice Golden Egg: Add one mana of any color.
{2}, {T}, Sacrifice Golden Egg: You gain 3 life.

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Fabled Passage

Market Price: $4.61

ImageURL: https://tcgplayer-cdn.tcgplayer.com/product/215556_200w.jpg

{T}, Sacrifice Fabled Passage: Search your library for a basic land card, put it onto the battlefield tapped, then shuffle. Then if you control four or more lands, untap that land.

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Omen of the Sea

Color Identity:U

Market Price: $0.11

ImageURL: https://tcgplayer-cdn.tcgplayer.com/product/206769_200w.jpg

Flash
When Omen of the Sea enters the battlefield, scry 2, then draw a card.
{2}{U}, Sacrifice Omen of the Sea: Scry 2.

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Archon of Sun's Grace

Color Identity:W

Market Price: $0.34

ImageURL: https://tcgplayer-cdn.tcgplayer.com/product/206838_200w.jpg

Flying, lifelink
Pegasus creatures you control have lifelink.
Constellation — Whenever an enchantment enters the battlefield under your control, create a 2/2 white Pegasus creature token with flying.

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Heartless Act

Color Identity:B

Market Price: $0.39

ImageURL: https://tcgplayer-cdn.tcgplayer.com/product/212369_200w.jpg

Choose one —
• Destroy target creature with no counters on it.
• Remove up to three counters from target creature.

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Island

Color Identity:U

Market Price: $0.05

ImageURL: https://tcgplayer-cdn.tcgplayer.com/product/215718_200w.jpg

({T}: Add {U}.)

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Elspeth Conquers Death

Color Identity:W

Market Price: $0.28

ImageURL: https://tcgplayer-cdn.tcgplayer.com/product/207052_200w.jpg

(As this Saga enters and after your draw step, add a lore counter. Sacrifice after III.)
I — Exile target permanent an opponent controls with mana value 3 or greater.
II — Noncreature spells your opponents cast cost {2} more to cast until your next turn.
III — Return target creature or planeswalker card from your graveyard to the battlefield. Put a +1/+1 counter or a loyalty counter on it.

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Heliod's Intervention

Color Identity:W

Market Price: $2.17

ImageURL: https://tcgplayer-cdn.tcgplayer.com/product/207075_200w.jpg

Choose one —
• Destroy X target artifacts and/or enchantments.
• Target player gains twice X life.

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Extinction Event

Color Identity:B

Market Price: $0.67

ImageURL: https://tcgplayer-cdn.tcgplayer.com/product/212261_200w.jpg

Choose odd or even. Exile each creature with mana value of the chosen quality. (Zero is even.)

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Emeria's Call

Color Identity:W

Market Price: $2.00

ImageURL: https://tcgplayer-cdn.tcgplayer.com/product/221952_200w.jpg

Create two 4/4 white Angel Warrior creature tokens with flying. Non-Angel creatures you control gain indestructible until your next turn.

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Negate

Color Identity:U

Market Price: $0.11

ImageURL: https://tcgplayer-cdn.tcgplayer.com/product/222130_200w.jpg

Counter target noncreature spell.

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Brightclimb Pathway

Color Identity:B,W

Market Price: $4.58

ImageURL: https://tcgplayer-cdn.tcgplayer.com/product/221817_200w.jpg

{T}: Add {W}.

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Castle Vantress

Color Identity:U

Market Price: $2.08

ImageURL: https://tcgplayer-cdn.tcgplayer.com/product/199284_200w.jpg

Castle Vantress enters the battlefield tapped unless you control an Island.
{T}: Add {U}.
{2}{U}{U}, {T}: Scry 2.

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Plains

Color Identity:W

Market Price: $0.04

ImageURL: https://tcgplayer-cdn.tcgplayer.com/product/242996_200w.jpg

({T}: Add {W}.)

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Temple of Silence

Color Identity:B,W

Market Price: $0.59

ImageURL: https://tcgplayer-cdn.tcgplayer.com/product/236445_200w.jpg

Temple of Silence enters the battlefield tapped.
When Temple of Silence enters the battlefield, scry 1.
{T}: Add {W} or {B}.

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Temple of Deceit

Color Identity:B,U

Market Price: $0.48

ImageURL: https://tcgplayer-cdn.tcgplayer.com/product/248800_200w.jpg

Temple of Deceit enters the battlefield tapped.
When Temple of Deceit enters the battlefield, scry 1.
{T}: Add {U} or {B}.

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Doom Foretold

Color Identity:B,W

Market Price: $0.11

ImageURL: https://tcgplayer-cdn.tcgplayer.com/product/198873_200w.jpg

At the beginning of each player's upkeep, that player sacrifices a nonland, nontoken permanent. If that player can't, they discard a card, they lose 2 life, you draw a card, you gain 2 life, you create a 2/2 white Knight creature token with vigilance, then you sacrifice Doom Foretold.

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Swamp

Color Identity:B

Market Price: $0.07

ImageURL: https://tcgplayer-cdn.tcgplayer.com/product/215721_200w.jpg

({T}: Add {B}.)

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Glass Casket

Color Identity:W

Market Price: $0.05

ImageURL: https://tcgplayer-cdn.tcgplayer.com/product/199004_200w.jpg

When Glass Casket enters the battlefield, exile target creature an opponent controls with mana value 3 or less until Glass Casket leaves the battlefield.

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Cling to Dust

Color Identity:B

Market Price: $0.17

ImageURL: https://tcgplayer-cdn.tcgplayer.com/product/206655_200w.jpg

Exile target card from a graveyard. If it was a creature card, you gain 3 life. Otherwise, you draw a card.
Escape—{3}{B}, Exile five other cards from your graveyard. (You may cast this card from your graveyard for its escape cost.)

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Omen of the Sun

Color Identity:W

Market Price: $0.05

ImageURL: https://tcgplayer-cdn.tcgplayer.com/product/206784_200w.jpg

Flash
When Omen of the Sun enters the battlefield, create two 1/1 white Human Soldier creature tokens and you gain 2 life.
{2}{W}, Sacrifice Omen of the Sun: Scry 2.

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Treacherous Blessing

Color Identity:B

Market Price: $0.19

ImageURL: https://tcgplayer-cdn.tcgplayer.com/product/206658_200w.jpg

When Treacherous Blessing enters the battlefield, draw three cards.
Whenever you cast a spell, you lose 1 life.
When Treacherous Blessing becomes the target of a spell or ability, sacrifice it.

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Elspeth's Nightmare

Color Identity:B

Market Price: $0.11

ImageURL: https://tcgplayer-cdn.tcgplayer.com/product/207053_200w.jpg

(As this Saga enters and after your draw step, add a lore counter. Sacrifice after III.)
I — Destroy target creature an opponent controls with power 2 or less.
II — Target opponent reveals their hand. You choose a noncreature, nonland card from it. That player discards that card.
III — Exile target opponent's graveyard.

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Clearwater Pathway

Color Identity:B,U

Market Price: $5.15

ImageURL: https://tcgplayer-cdn.tcgplayer.com/product/221830_200w.jpg

{T}: Add {U}.

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Temple of Enlightenment

Color Identity:U,W

Market Price: $0.22

ImageURL: https://tcgplayer-cdn.tcgplayer.com/product/254239_200w.jpg

Temple of Enlightenment enters the battlefield tapped.
When Temple of Enlightenment enters the battlefield, scry 1.
{T}: Add {W} or {U}.

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Notice the maindeck countermagic. Most Esper Doom decks had maybe a couple counters in the main, or more likely no counters at all in the maindeck before this past weekend. We realized that while the counters don't really go that well with your Doom Foretold plan, if we wanted to beat Temur Ramp adding them was a necessity. These types of changes can come at a cost, of course. It did mean when we faced off against the aggro decks like Gruul Aggro we were in a bit worse of a spot, as the countermagic was tough to line up properly in aggressive matchups.

Step 5: Stay Within Your Comfort Zone as a Player

I have said this before, but don't force yourself to play a deck you don't feel comfortable with from a gameplay perspective. I often will rule out a deck or two in an open format that I don't think I'm the best at playing. In a balanced metagame it's even more true that you want to play to your strengths.

I was able to sit down and talk with Tomas Pokorny after his breakout finish in the Zendikar Rising Championship. He told me that even though the rest of his testing team was playing different decks, he wanted to play Four-Color Control in Historic. He made this choice because it's an archetype he felt comfortable with, and he qualified for the tournament playing a similar deck. It turned out to be a great choice to trust himself, and identify what he's good at.

Step 6: Have a Timeline

You really don't want to put yourself in a situation where your decision gets made at the last minute. This is a bit of a hypocritical comment coming from me, but if you don't choose your deck in a timely manner you'll often have a list that's off by a few cards. On the flip side, if you do end up coming down to the last minute making a choice, I like to have two choices fully fleshed out. Games on the last few days before a tournament are actually the most important, because you may run into fellow competitors testing for the same events you are, so don't stop playing games even if you have arrived at your choice.

Step 7: Gather Input from Others

Testing for a MTG event, especially at higher levels of play, is not a solo process. While I am putting this as the seventh step, there is no harm in asking for other's opinions throughout the process. Don't only rely on listening to others, as if you make your deck choice just based off of advice you will often be more upset with yourself after a poor result. I know from experience.

Step 8: Know Your Competition

Once you get to higher level MTG events, scouting your opponents becomes much more important. This means if you play against a fellow competitor on the ladder, you take notes on what they are playing. You can also go through results from players in recent tournaments they have played.

I was a bit surprised that Sacrifice was the most-played deck in Historic for the Zendikar Rising Championship, from a power level perspective. From my testing the sacrifice decks never actually impressed me that much, so my first thought was that my testing must have been off somehow, or other competitors had better Sacrifice lists. None of this was true though. I think the reason there was so much Sacrifice in the field is because players had played the deck previously.

When players rely on step five, which they often do, it also means they are prone to play a deck that they have done well with in the past. Unfortunately for the Sacrifice players there haven't been a ton of new inclusions for the strategy outside Scrapheap Scrounger and Chandra, Torch of Defiance. I was ready for Sacrifice by choosing to play many copies of Cry of the Carnarium in my list as a Sultai player.

Step 9: Iron Out Your Sideboard Plans

I like to go through what I'm sideboarding in and out of my deck before a big tournament. Sometimes when you go through your sideboard plans you will realize you have one card too many, or one card too few in a given matchup. This will usually happen once you already have a good idea what you are playing, as it's often fixed by adjusting a card or two.

Step 10: Remember It's Just a Game

In a balanced format, it's much more difficult to get a big edge. We are talking about small percentage points. I'm confident in saying you can't pick up a Standard or Historic deck right now and expect to be over 60% against the field just based off deck choice alone. This means you are going to do a lot of losing regardless. I went 9-6 this past weekend despite being quite pleased with my choices. It's easy to second guess yourself after having chosen a deck and seeing what others are playing.