Standard Deck Selection

A recurring motif in my articles has been the importance of capitalizing on small edges. In any game that involves chance, you should always be seeking ways to reduce variance. When it comes to Magic, one of the single biggest areas you can gain an edge in is deck selection. Without taking the matchup into account, a world-class player can never be much more than a 65% favorite against a solid player. And for the large majority of us that aren’t world-class players, the odds are even lower. So if you want to win, you need to look elsewhere for edges. I highly recommend working on improving your deck selection skills and methods in order to find that necessary edge. In my last article, I touched on the best approaches to take when choosing a deck for Modern tournament, but now I want to talk about the format that rewards you most for solid deck selection, Standard.

Because of the decision to use Worlds as the premier level event following the release of Ixalan, we saw the unique occurrence of a mid-season Standard Pro Tour this past weekend. With more time and information available to players, deck selection played a much larger role in this event than most other Pro Tours. There’s a lot to be gained by analyzing the approaches of players who saw success in the event and applying similar principles to your decision making in the future.

Metagaming

When dealing with Standard, the most pivotal aspect of deck selection is metagaming. There’s no shortage of information available, but the ability to draw proper conclusions from available data is a skill that needs to be developed. The best way to improve in this area is simply by playing the format. While you’re playing, be sure to look for why certain decks are beating others, what matters in those matchups, and what can be altered in order to improve matchups. When you’re on top of all of this information, staying ahead of the metagame isn’t as difficult as it may seem.

Taking a look at this past weekend, it’s no surprise to see Team Genesis walk away the winners of a mid-season Standard Pro Tour. The team has a reputation for always having a finger on the pulse of the Standard format, and they managed to live up to their reputation.


This looks familiar.

The majority of the team brought a Sultai Energy deck that closely resembled the list I used to take down the SCG Dallas Open week one of the format. But as much as I would like to take credit for having some part in a feat as impressive as a Pro Tour win, throwing some good Sultai cards in a deck together isn’t nearly as remarkable as determining that Sultai Energy was well positioned for the event. Even I had pretty much given up on Sultai Energy in this format. Sultai Energy matched up well against a large portion of the field, but Temur Energy was also good against most of the same decks as well. So that combined with the fact that Temur Energy was favored against Sultai, left little reason for players to actually sleeve up some snakes.

So what exactly changed?

Temur did.


This list winning Worlds was a pretty brutal blow to Sultai fans everywhere. The PGO Temur list was lean and consistent, so getting under them was a difficult task. The deck had plenty of interaction against The Scarab God, Sultai’s best threat against Temur. And most importantly, they maxed out on copies of Glorybringer, the single best card against Sultai.

But in a Temur dominated metagame, the revert back to a Black splash was inevitable. The arms race for supremacy in the Temur Energy mirror began, and players started incorporating haymakers in larger numbers.


Hostage Taker
This is a trend I had picked up on, and I was playing decks like Ramunap Red and Mardu Vehicles to success online for the past couple weeks. With the Temur decks getting clunkier and slower, getting underneath them was a much easier task. But I didn’t consider how these changes affected Sultai Energy’s position in the metagame.

Glorybringer is one of the weaker top end threats in Temur mirrors, so it stands to reason that people would look to shave copies for more potent threats in the mirror.

That’s a win for Sultai.

If the Temur decks are clunkier, Sultai has the ability to get underneath them and leverage that advantage with strong tempo plays like Blossoming Defense and Hostage Taker.

That’s a win for Sultai.

If other players were also looking to get underneath Temur with decks like Ramunap Red and Mardu Vehicles, the amount of great matchups in the field for Sultai increases significantly.

That’s a win for Sultai.

Team Genesis did a commendable job on picking up on all of this, and they were rewarded with a stellar finish and the lead in the Pro Tour team series.

These are the things you have to be considering when trying to gauge the Standard metagame. It may seem simple when broken down like this, but when you realize how many decks there are, how every little thing can potentially have an impact on the positioning of those decks, and that your reasoning for certain things may be wrong, it becomes anything but simple. If it was simple, more than 5% of the best players in the world would have realized it.

It’s also important to note that drawing these conclusions is much simpler in hindsight. I was able to figure it out because I’m working with complete information. I know Sultai did well, so it’s easier to point to reasons why it did well. The challenging part will be applying similar logic to determine what is going to emerge on top as we head toward the end of the format.

Familiarity

Despite just rambling on about the importance of metagaming, it’s not the only way to gain an edge when selecting a Standard deck. You can gain an advantage by thoroughly learning the ins-and-outs of your deck. This clip of Pascal Maynard sums up the concept perfectly.

If you are going to commit to learning a specific deck, you have to be very careful when choosing that deck. As alluded to earlier, the Standard metagame can be quite fickle. If you plan on spending a few weeks learning how to play a deck, you need to be sure the deck will still be a viable option when the event you’re preparing for comes around. The best ways to ensure the deck will still be viable is to either play an off the radar deck that people won’t be prepared for regardless, or to learn a deck that seems to remain relatively stagnant in the metagame.


As he mentioned in the clip, Pascal is well versed in this method of deck selection, so it’s no surprise to see him choose to learn a deck that would perfectly reward him for sinking time into it. The {W}{U} God-Pharaoh’s Gift deck gets into a lot of convoluted board positions, and the majority of Pascal’s opponents likely had little to no experience in the matchup. But since Pascal had invested so much time into the deck, he was likely able to work through them with relative ease.


My new teammate, John Rolf, played 74/75 cards noted Red master, Sandydogmtg, used to win an online PTQ a few weeks ago. Ramunap Red is an ideal example of a deck that’s always going to be fine. None of your matchups are particularly bad, and none of them are particularly good. The edges you gain here are in small tweaks and matchup knowledge. You don’t have to do anything too fancy with the list, but you do have to know how every matchup plays out. Assessing your role incorrectly, sequencing incorrectly, and sideboading incorrectly, are all more punishing mistakes then they would be with most decks. If you’re looking for a deck to stick with, I wouldn't recommend anything but Ramunap Red at the moment.

While the late Pro Tour may be a bit more boring for some, I actually really enjoyed it. Seeing how players arrived at their deck choice with more time and information was really interesting. While I know the Pro Tour primarily serves as a marketing tool for new sets and that more mid-season Pro Tours are unlikely, I really do hope there are more in the future. They seem to do a great job at highlighting different skill sets than Pro Tours immediately following the release of sets do. There’s a larger emphasis on sound deck selection than sound deck-building, and I don’t see much of a problem with that. There are plenty of different ways to gain an edge in a match of Magic. Being better at one doesn’t make you empirically better as a player, so seeing events played at the highest level that reward different skills is a nice change of pace.

The last thing I would like to point out is that the deck I built one week after the set came out won the Pro Tour over a month later, and I barely even mentioned it. Instead, choosing to credit Seth and his team on a great deck choice. I’m a real class act, if I say so myself.


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