The Underappreciated Art of Deck Tuning

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If you missed the memo, all of the articles, the press conference and the staggering amount of data supporting the fact, then somebody should tell you that Standard is very, very open right now. While this is in many respects a very good and interesting thing for Standard, it does imply that seeing consistent success will require a bit more work than more closed formats. When you’re not exactly sure what you’ll play against in a given tournament, then it becomes important to constantly tune your deck to be able to beat the widest range of opposing decks.

Being able to beat everything is a very tall order. From my exploits on Magic Online I’ve played against dozens of decks. Jund midrange, Bant Planeswalkers, Esper Planeswalkers, Esper Tokens, Monored, GW Humans, UW Humans, UWR Geist, UWR Séance, Junk Tokens, Junk Rites, Four Color Rites, Angel of Glory’s Rise Combo, BR Zombies, GB Zombies, Epic Experiment, Burn at the Stake Combo, UW Draw-Go, GW Chalice of Life… just a whole lot of decks. So how does one go about battling such a gauntlet?

Step One: Pick Your Pony

With such a wide range of viable decks it’s very likely that you’ll like at least one of them. And that’s an important starting point- if you’re playing a deck that you enjoy playing, then you’ll be more passionate about tuning it. A lot of players recommend starting with the stock list and making changes after you get a few matches in, but I usually make some changes before I start battling. If I see a deck that I will like playing, I don't hesitate to cut a card that I don’t think is good. When doing so it is important to keep the card in mind during testing just to make sure that cutting it wasn’t a mistake, but more on that later.

I find that I see the most success with a variation of a popular deck rather than a straight brew of my own. This is partly because discovering undiscovered strategies isn’t one of my strong suits, but I also think that there is a good amount of advantage to playing something slightly different from something that people are used to. By playing an established archetype you will cause your opponent to make some basic assumptions about what your deck does- most generally players will assume you are close to the stock list. You can usually gain a lot of advantage by exploiting such assumptions. How many players do you think were ready for Crippling Blight out of Zombies in week one of this format? How many people played with it in mind? The card isn’t unbeatable by any stretch of the imagination, but it’s a lot tougher to beat when your opponent doesn’t see it coming, and tougher still when they were expecting something else.

Step Two: Battle!

When a format is small it’s pretty good practice to grab a deck and a friend and hash out how particular matchups play out. This is still fine practice in a very open format, as you’ll become more familiar with your own deck, but you’ll learn less about the format at large. It’s quite a lot of work to put together all of the potential Standard decks and more work still to find somebody to pilot them well. It’s a lot easier to just run a deck through two-mans on MTGO. Sadly this is a rather expensive practice, but I’m not going to pretend like I don’t believe it to be the best practice. You’ll generally play against people playing what they want to play and playing it with something (money) on the line. It’s very close to actual tournament Magic, outside of the obvious differences between live Magic and MTGO.

Personally I like to maintain a spreadsheet of my win/loss record against various decks as I battle, but this is hardly necessary. It’s more important to keep track of how many outs you had in games that you lost, how individual cards in your deck are performing and which cards/strategies from your opponents are causing you the most problems.

Step Three: Adapt

Sometimes I wish that I kept track of each individual change that I made to a deck as I edited them. But for the most part I think that such a document would be longer than it would be useful. I guess what I’m trying to say is that I make A LOT of minor edits to my decks as I battle with them. While making such changes I try to keep the following principles in mind:

No Sacred Cows

A lot of player’s have tendencies to adopt certain pet cards that they refuse to not play. This results in a lot of suboptimal decklists. No matter how much you like a card nothing should ever be uncuttable. Unless I’m really slacking off, I don’t include cards in my deck without having a very good answer to the question, “Why are you playing that?” There is no worse answer to this question then shrugging and asking, “Why not?” Reasons not to do anything only matter when sufficient reasons to do that thing have been presented.

Keep track of how all of the cards in your deck are performing and if they’re not doing their job, cut them or add something that you believe will sufficiently supplement your desired ends.

Maintain a List of Potential Cards You’re Not Playing

While playtesting I like to think about which cards I’m not playing would be good in every situation that I encounter. If I find myself wishing that I had a specific card frequently then I make room for that card in my deck. Seeing as I tend to make changes to stock lists from the get-go, my list of potentials always starts with whatever cards the stock lists are playing that I am not and just sort of grows from there as I think more about the deck.

Avoid Labels

I see a lot of meaningless discourse occur in the discussion of particular decks. For whatever reason labels like “aggro-control” and “midrange” are thrown around all the time. They’re not entirely useless terms, but they are too general to really offer very much information. If I’m seriously discussing a deck with somebody I definitely don’t waste time with these labels. If I were talking about my Bant list from last week's article, I wouldn’t just say that it’s a mirangey control deck if I wanted to tell somebody about the deck. I would take the time to explain that it’s a deck that exploits Thragtusk and Sphinx's Revelation to grind out the long game.

Not only does this tell other people more about my deck, but it also gets me thinking more about the deck myself. If my lens is “this is a midrange deck” then I’ll look to adapt it in ways to conform to being midrange… whatever that even means. Once I identify it as a Sphinx's Revelation deck I start asking what it means to be a Revelation deck and how I can build the best version of such a deck.

Specialized vocabulary is useful in terms of relaying information quickly, but a more general knowledge of concepts is infinitely more valuable than knowing what the cool kids are calling something.

Step Four: Keep Adapting

Metagames never stop shifting, and for this reason a deck tuner’s work is never done. Let go of any delusions of finished products. Everything is a work in progress. It’s true that you can win tomorrow’s tournament with yesterday’s technology, but that route absolutely has worse odds than putting in the work to keep an up to date list.

Don’t Forget to Have Fun!

I firmly believe that this is the best Standard format that I have ever played. I don’t see eye to eye with players that claim that Thragtusk is a plague, but rather I see it as just another very good card in a sea of very good cards. No matter what you like playing there is a deck for you in Standard. Find it. Embrace it. Enjoy it.

Until next week, good luck; high five!

-Ryan Overturf
@RyanOverdrive on Twitter

Ryan Overturf

Ryan has been playing Magic since Legions and playing competitively since Lorwyn. While he fancies himself a Legacy specialist, you'll always find him with strong opinions on every constructed format.

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2 thoughts on “The Underappreciated Art of Deck Tuning

  1. Good article Ryan. How much attention and weight do you give to the SCG circuit vs your local meta? Or does your meta follow the SCG circuit in a noticable way?

    1. If a good deck breaks on on SCG then you’ll likely see it on MTGO. It all boils down to the deck, really. Sometimes bad decks top 8, and when they’re bad they either don’t catch on or they’re already good matchups incidentally. It is good to pay attention for when good ones break through though.

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