My last several articles have focused on my recent successful tournament runs, and I've received quite a few requests to touch on how I prepare for an event. This seems like an excellent opportunity to start a new series on tournament fundamentals. Let me know if this is something you're interested in seeing more of, and what other topic areas you'd like me to cover.
Step 1: Archetype Decisions
Do Your Research
First and foremost is figuring out what you want to play. This is often easier said than done. Many players tend to only have a single competitive deck in their possession. This can be both a blessing and a curse. If there's only one option in your arsenal, the decision is easy, but there's less agency in the outcome if the meta is more or less hostile in a given week.
For those with fluidity in their card pool (or those with a network of other players to borrow cards from), I recommend taking a look at online resources like MTGTop8, MTGGoldfish, and most importantly, the previous week's Magic: Online (MTGO) Challenge finishes or other large, recent tournament results to get an idea of what the meta at large looks like. Other players will be using these resources to guide their decision-making as well.
Look out for new tech like Sundering Titan showing up in Four Color Pile to break the mirror, or Invasive Surgery out of blue decks to fight Cascade. Also, keep an eye out for the density of a particular deck in high placing finishes. Perhaps Hammer Time doesn't win the event, but if there are six copies of it in the top 16, consider that a significant data point. Over time, look for recurring trends across multiple weeks. For example, when UR Murktide Regent decks consistently put up solid results, it points to the deck being on more than just a lucky streak.
Timing is Everything
There's an old adage that the best time to play Dredge is when Dredge is unplayable. In essence, choose the deck that players aren't overwhelmingly prepared against. If the meta has started to trim on Chalice of the Void and Flusterstorm, Cascade decks might be the right choice. When Four Color Pile is moving away from Counterspell, combo decks are the right call. For example, Calibrated Blast combo just won this past Saturday's Modern Challenge.
Alternatively, there may be a deck that just doesn't fold to singular hate pieces. Right now, Four Color Pile is in this sweet spot. It just plays the best cards on rate and can self-insulate from Blood Moon effects, making it difficult to punish in the way Rest in Peace or Stony Silence might for other decks.
These well-rounded decks are typically my preferred option when going into a smaller tournament like an RCQ where I don't know what to expect and there may be a few off-meta pet decks running about. There's still a chance that bad matchups show up like Tron or Belcher, but the likelihood of pairing against those compared to Cascade, Hammer, Murktide, or Amulet is relatively low.
Step 2: Know Thy Enemy
Sleeve 'em Up
The best thing a player can do to level up is to play different decks. Between rental services on Magic: Online, free clients like Cockatrice, or good 'ole fashioned paper proxies, there are plenty of ways to learn how different decks function. By understanding what lines these decks prioritize and their range of keepable hands, it becomes easier to combat them as well as discern what cards may be in the opponent's hand.
Knowing What to Expect
Knowing how opposing decks function, helps with sideboard decisions as well, particularly when it comes to knowing which cards stop the hate cards they're likely bringing in. For example, Esper Reanimator will expect the opponent to have something to stop graveyard interactions after sideboarding.
If that card is likely Nihil Spellbomb, Stony Silence is a great next-level answer. However, if it's Leyline of the Void, Stony Silence would have no effect. Additional copies of Teferi, Time Raveler from the sideboard would be better. When we know the opponent is more likely to have Endurance as their card of choice, something like Dress Down is ideal.
Step 3: Card Selection
All Around me are Familiar Faces
Ok, we've picked our archetype for the weekend and found a list we like. The next step is to keep in mind what the deck's strengths are in the metagame and what are its weaknesses. We have a general idea of what to expect at the upcoming event, so we can make tweaks to tune up or tune down certain elements based on the anticipated metagame.
At an event like an RCQ, there will be many familiar faces as the same grinders will be chasing the qualification each weekend. This may hint toward what matchups may be more or less likely, especially since (as discussed above) many players only own a single competitive deck. If, for example, there are several Burn players expected to show up, it might be prudent to include something like Weather the Storm in the sideboard. On the other hand, something like Mill is very uncommon in paper play, despite the occasional result online. It's less likely that the Emrakul, the Aeons Torn in your sideboard will be worth its slot.
In my most recent tournament, I swapped in The Wandering Emperor in Four Color over a copy of Ice-Fang Coatl as well added Tale's End to the sideboard over Nimble Obstructionist. These changes were meant to target the mirror, providing additional ways to answer opposing Teferi, Time Ravelers while trimming on cards less crucial to the matchup.
I also exchanged Castle Vantress for Boseiju, Who Endures to deal with Cavern of Souls which has started to see more play in the Elementals-heavy variant. It additionally provides some help against the Indomitable Creativity deck along with Tron, both of which can be difficult matchups. It doesn't hurt that it's also a great help against Amulet and Hammer, which, while good matchups, can eke out a win depending on the draw.
Tweaking a deck has a bit to do with statistical analysis and a lot to do with gut feeling. At the end of the day, these modifications offer only a few small percentage points of difference, but they can absolutely make the difference when the hunch is right.
This is just an overview of the thoughts that go into preparing for an event, and I'm looking forward to discussing other elements of successful tournament grinding. Let me know what other topics you'd like to see, and if any of this is helpful for your next event. Good luck, have fun, and I'll see you all next week.