The current Standard format is now winding down, with many players ready for Khans of Tarkir to be released. With that said there are still major tournaments to prepare for using the current Standard format. I am personally looking forward to playing in a World Magic Cup Qualifier. The issue is what deck should I choose?
I agree that the most important factor when selecting a deck to play is comfort level. I certainly wouldn't suggest someone just pick up a control deck without having played a number of games with the deck, for instance. With that said many of the top archetypes have been around for quite a while now, so many players have already had a chance to get a feel and understanding of some of the top decks. With everything being equal - card availability, play skill, and whatnot - most players want to select the deck that they believe will give them the greatest chance of winning the tournament.
Sometimes this means picking up the same deck that you were playing six months ago. For instance, I know many players that have been playing Monoblue or Monoblack Devotion for quite a while, and they continue to play the decks, but don't necessarily believe they are playing the 'best' deck in the format. I share the opinion of many others that there is no clear best deck in Standard right now, which makes knowing the deck you decide to play that much more important.
Simply jamming games with one of the top decks against many of the different archetypes in the format will provide the repetition necessary to have a greater confidence in deck choice. For those who have access to Magic Online this is certainly one of the best tools for getting a better feel with a deck. What I don't recommend is playing a number of games versus a tier two deck a friend might think is good. Oftentimes this will skew results and in some cases your friend might have a good matchup versus you. Just because you might be losing to one deck or another doesn't mean it's time to start adding cards to make that specific matchup better. It's important to be prepared for the entire metagame, not just one specific deck, especially if that deck isn't a tier one strategy.
With that being said there certainly will be locations which have a greater representation of some decks as compared to others. When preparing for a smaller tournament where the field is a relatively known quantity it becomes okay to make a couple of small adjustments to the 75. While this contradicts the point I made earlier, when preparing for a smaller tournament where it is easier to predict what the field will look like making adjustments can be a good idea.
I will often do this when I am frustrated about losing to the same deck over and over again as well. I am talking this time about losing in a tournament, not to a buddy. In my experience it is possible to tweak most decks in Standard to make just about any matchup a favorable one. The key is that when making one matchup more favorable, this often means sacrificing another matchup. When attending a large tournament like a Pro Tour Qualifier or Grand Prix I want my 75 to have game against as many decks as possible because over the course of such a large tournament it is likely that you will run into a variety of different archetypes.
Once getting the repetition with a deck it is easier to navigate in game situations more effectively, and make better mulligan decisions. Both of these factors will have a direct effect on play skill and sometimes simply making your winning percentage slightly higher is good enough. For instance knowing when it is correct to go all-in on the Pack Rat plan is very important when playing a black-based strategy, and oftentimes the best way to know if it is correct is to reference previous games you have played of a given matchup. On a similar note regarding mulligan decisions, sometimes when learning the matchup you will learn to value certain cards higher. One example of this is on the draw in the Black Devotion mirror when you have a reasonable hand, that has all cards that cost three or more. This is the type of hand that is usually a mulligan as it contains no answers to a 2nd turn Pack Rat. The other area that I find improves after playing a number of games with a deck is of course sideboarding.
Knowing how to sideboard is one of the most important ways of gaining an edge on your opponent. Many of the decks in the format have a fairly streamlined maindeck, but can change drastically after board. For instance, the Monoblue Devotion matchup versus control has typically been bad game one, but has the potential to improve significantly after game one. It is important to not only know which cards to bring in, but also how to use them. In order to do this it becomes important to test sideboarded games. Many times I will see players only testing game ones, but oftentimes this will not be good enough preparation.
Okay, so is it time to move beyond choosing a deck based on level of comfort? Personally I have gotten in enough games with many of the top tier decks to feel comfortable playing, mulliganing, and sideboarding with many of them. I believe that at this point it becomes very important to start factoring in metagaming.
Choosing a deck to play based on the anticipated tournament field, can be quite different than simply changing a few cards in a deck to prepare for the field. For instance, one of the most popular decks at Pro Tour M15 was Black/White Control. I myself played the deck, but I knew the matchup versus red aggro wasn't very good. Still, I wasn't expecting the red decks to be that popular, but there were others who realized how good the black decks are, and thus decided to play red. Sometimes new archetypes do enter a known format or metagame, and this is when a shift in deck choice can start to occur.
Let's take a look at Rabble Red, here's the list Armel Primot made the top eight of GP Utrecht with:
Rabble Red and, to a lesser extent, the Boros Aggro deck which some of the ChannelFireball guys have been playing introduced more red aggressive decks to the format. Both decks involve a large amount of one-drops coupled with Burning-Tree Emissary. Not only are the creatures very important but the four copies of Stoke the Flames are very relevant. Stoke the Flames is the absolute perfect answer to Blood Baron of Vizkopa. Being able to kill Blood Baron of Vizkopa with Stoke the Flames is one of the primary reasons the Black/White matchup is favorable.
The Rabble Red deck is the deck that was able to successfully take advantage of the most cards from M15. Yes, there are definitely some M15 cards that have made splashes elsewhere, but the success of both Goblin Rabblemaster and Stoke the Flames is undeniable here. This past weekend I noticed that many of the top pros opted to play UW Control at the WMCQ in Oakland. While none did particularly well with the deck, that doesn't make it a bad deck choice. I started to wonder though why players like Tom Martell, Eric Froehlich, and William Jensen all played UW Control in Seattle.
UW Control was not a deck that any of these players played at Pro Tour M15, and each were successful with other decks for that tournament. Still, all opted to play UW Control, and not the Planar Cleansing version, but the Detention Sphere version. I think a deck choice like this showcases how important it is to be aware exactly what type of field you expect for a given tournament. While I don't have their list to share, I did notice cards such as Fiendslayer Paladin in the sideboard. Fiendslayer Paladin is one of those cards that has the ability to absolutely wreck a deck like Rabble Red. I am planning to play in SCG DC this weekend so I will share the UW Control list which I plan to play.
I would like to explain a couple of the card choices here. The maindeck is hedging slightly toward the Rabble Red, Monoblack Devotion, and Monoblue Devotion matchups. I personally am a huge fan of Last Breath, and I think playing four copies main is correct. It is true that they are not that good in the mirror, as they only hit Mutavault and Elspeth Tokens, and are also not great versus Jund Monsters. I am okay with that though. This particular version isn't trying to beat the mirror game one, though that's not to say it isn't possible.
In my opinion the Detention Sphere version is a better choice for a tournament like a StarCity Games Open or World Magic Cup Qualifier. I would rather play a card that is good versus the aggressive decks, and take my chances versus control. One of the primary reasons not to play Detention Sphere is because it matches up so poorly against an opposing deck with Planar Cleansing. I not only recommend playing Detention Spheres but I also have more experience with this version.
Since the deck has Detention Sphere it means I am not playing Planar Cleansing, and this means I don't see the need for Quicken or Divination either. Quicken, Divination, and Planar Cleansing all work well together, and lose value when played on their own. Jace's Ingenuity serves as another instant speed card drawing effect, so there is no need to worry about drawing both Quicken and Divination together, so as to be able to leave up a Counterspell. My personal preference has always been to play two Elspeth, Sun's Champion rather than the three most people play. It just sucks drawing two six-drops early in the game versus most decks. There is also one Banishing Light, as another Detention Sphere type effect.
The sideboard has certainly been a continuous evolution. The playset of Nyx-Fleece Rams have quickly become a staple in the sideboard. This card is not only great against the red and burn decks, it also does a ton of work in the green/white matchup. Having lifegain in the board has become absolutely necessary, and there are also two Fiendslayer Paladins. While game one versus the red decks can be tough these sideboard cards make it very difficult for the red deck to win games two and three.
In fact these aren't the only forms of lifegain in the board. The Archangel of Thune comes in not only versus the red decks, but also versus green/white and Monoblue Devotion. One of the more unusual choices here is the Elixir of Immortality in the board. Most of the time Elixir of Immortality is seen in the main or not at all, while this sideboard slot is flexible I like having the option to board in a secondary win condition. This card is certainly very important in the control mirror, but also allows you to potentially take out all the win conditions and simply board in Elixir of Immortality.
The last few slots in the board are dedicated to a Fated Retribution and Counterspells. The Fated Retribution is very important versus Jund Planeswalkers, and it is an instant speed answer to problem creatures like Stormbreath Dragon, Mistcutter Hydra, or Obzedat, Ghost Council. I think Dispel is very good right now and that's why there are two copies. It is the best card in any sort of counter war, as it can counter troublesome spells like Advent of the Wurm.
The lesson I have learned is that if you feel comfortable with each deck in the format, and don't feel there is a tremendous difference in power level between them, choose a deck that allows a lot of room for gameplay. In my opinion UW Control is one of the more skill intensive decks in the format, and it is a deck that can punish the opponent for making a mistake. When talking to a good friend of mine, Alexander Hayne, he told me he doesn't necessarily choose the most powerful deck, he simply chooses a deck that wants to play a long and drawn out game, with plenty of decisions to be made. UW Control is that type of deck, but there are so many decks in this format I can't fault fellow players for playing pretty much any archetype.
Thanks for reading,