I’m trying my luck at a big Magic: The Gathering tournament next weekend, and I’m struck by powerful indecision. Even at this late hour, I’m undecided on what deck I am actually going to play, and that’s got me more stressed than the actual tournament play in front of me.
There are a few big formats in Magic where you bring your own deck to a competition. There’s the Standard format, which is made up of the most recent Magic sets. There are Legacy and Vintage, which are made up of most of the cards printed since Magic’s original release in 1993. And then there is Modern, the format I am going to be playing next weekend, which is made up of cards printed since the release of 2003's 8th Edition core set.
The benefit of a format like Standard is that there are relatively few cards in it, which means that there are a slim number of competitive decks that you might see in a tournament. By contrast, Modern is a big, wide format in which lots and lots of different kinds of decks have a genuine shot at appearing across the table from you.
I’ve chosen the deck that I want to play. I’ve purchased some cards. I’m putting everything in their brand-new sleeves. Except, even as I do that, I’m second guessing myself. What if I’ve made the wrong choice? The competitive field is going to be very wide and fairly unpredictable.
That’s also the best part of Modern, though, and it is why I am so excited to play the format in a big tournament. Short of aberrant time periods like the “Eldrazi Winter” of a few years ago, the Modern format rarely has a “best deck.” The format is generally a balanced matrix of several different deck types, each with their own victory strategies, that have various levels of percentile chance of defeating each other.
Within that framework, choosing a deck is really hard. Looking at a metagame tracking site like MTG Goldfish allows you to see what decks are best represented in a format, and it helps me make a decision about what kind of deck that I would like to play.
Pulling from weekend tournament results and Magic Online competitive leagues, MTG Goldfish is very good at depicting the field of competition across all of Magic. However, every other player also has that same information if they check out the site, meaning that they will also be deciding their upcoming deck based on the same information that I have. It’s a complex rock-paper-scissors game at large scale with decks that can cost upward of $1,000. It is, in a word, stressful.
At this point, I find this process harder than the actual play of the game. Once you’re sitting at the table and shuffling cards, it’s hard to second guess yourself. You’ve gotta play against the opponent you have with the deck you came with, and that’s all about critical thinking and remembering the labyrinth of rules that comes with Magic.
Like all competitive games, though, looking at the meta and making decisions is a sort of game-before-the-game. Although there’s rarely a “best” deck in Modern, there are decks that have more consistency and inevitability than other decks.
For example, if I play a deck in the archetype known as a “control deck,” I’m banking on being able to survive a few turns so that I can get my counterspells and efficient creature killing spells online. If my opponent is running a hyper-aggressive deck like Hollow One, then I might not survive through those necessary turns. As a player, the choice between those two decks comes down to consistency and inevitability. Do I think they can win regularly? If I gain an advantage, can I hold it through to the win?
In my very practical case of deck choice, the field in Modern is currently being heavily impacted by a new form of a classic deck. It’s called Dredge, and it wins games by “dredging” cards directly from the library into the graveyard. The recent printing of a card named Creeping Chill has given Dredge that exact inevitability that I discussed above. Instead of having to attack their way to a win, they can simply put cards in their graveyard and drain their opponent incidentally. It’s a powerful combination.
So while it isn’t the “best” deck in the format, Dredge’s new prominence is yet another thing to consider while choosing a deck, and it highlights the reality of deck choice in competitive Magic. When you choose a deck, you are essentially choosing what kind of opponent you want to be weak to. Do you want to have a harder time with those late-game control decks or those early game aggressive ones? Do you want to fight your opponent’s most powerful cards while they are still in their hand using discard, or do you want to use efficient removal on the cards after they play them? These are the choices you’re really making when you choose a deck.
Or you can simply make choices based on what you find fun. While that’s not the most competitive decision to make, I’d be lying if I didn’t say that I have a huge love in my heart for decks like Blink Riders or Martyr Proc, both of which are decks that do not win through traditional means. There’s something beautiful about sitting down with a complete wildcard deck that keeps your opponent guessing. The draw is strong.
Choosing a deck for Magic’s Modern format is incredibly difficult and time-intensive for me, but in my opinion this also helps illustrate why Magic is one of the best games ever made. It is so profoundly open that there are rarely completely correct choices. Instead, you get lots of decision points that lead up to something close-to-correct, and making this deck choice is just the first of a lot of choices out in front of me in the tournament itself.
But, you know, there’s like a 90% chance I play some kind of deck that just blows up my opponent’s lands and prevents them from playing the game. That’s just the way I like to play Magic.
Update 11:16PM: This article previously stated that Modern began with the release of the Mirrodin set, but in fact it begins with the release of the 8th Edition expansion, which released a few months previous to Mirrodin.