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By: Javasci, Robert Johnson
Apr 25 2007 10:03pm
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A constructed tournament is an unforgiving place.  Very few decks even have a chance at making the elusive top 8 in a Premier Event, or even winning one match in a queue.  If you come uninformed, you will leave One with Nothing.  Here, I shall teach you how to avoid the most basic mistakes to be made in a constructed tournament.

Not all decks are created equal.

In tournaments, winning is first, and fun (other than the fun of winning) is not a factor.  As people have said, "Style points do not appear on tournament reports."  No matter how intricate your combo or how cool your theme, if it doesn't win, it doesn't win.  In tournaments, where everyone is playing good decks, only the best decks can win.

If the world agrees, they're probably right.

Most people in tournaments are playing netdecks.  Netdecks are decks that have been proven in tournaments, copied, and played by other people.  They often win, and there is nothing wrong with playing them.  However, if you want to try to make a better deck, there are some things to know:

The best decks play the best cards.

The three levels of card quality.

Savannah Lions

Paladin en-Vec
Serra Angel

If you were playing a red/white aggro deck in an extended tournament, which would you rather have?

The correct answer, according to players who play the deck called Boros Deck Wins in extended tournaments, is Savannah Lions.  That card is one of the best cards.  (Good cards, like Paladin en-Vec, often make it into decks too.)

What, you may ask, makes it one of the best cards?  Why isn't the bigger creature, Serra Angel, the best?

Savannah Lions has:

  • High power-to-mana cost ratio.  Lions has twice as much power as it costs.  Angel has only 4/5 as much.  An aggro deck, like Boros Deck Wins, wants to reduce the opponent's life from 20 to 0 as fast as possible.  To do that, it uses creatures with high power and low cost, as well as burn spells (like Lightning Helix) with high damage compared to cost.
  • Low cost.  In most tournament formats, the various deckbuilders have perfected their decks so that games are often over or effectively over by turn 5 at the latest.  Thus, by the time you get to play your Serra Angel, you have lost to the player who played 2 Savannah Lions, 2 (Goblin Legionairre)s, an Isamaru, Hound of Konda, and a Sudden Shock.

Paladin en-Vec is one of the good cards.  It is not as good as Lions, but it has enough power to appear in tournament-winning decks.

Serra Angel is a mediocre card.  It can only appear in a deck that exploits some aspect of it that no other card can do better.  This is because, as stated earlier, by the time you have played your angel, you have lost to the lions player.

Eager Cadet is a bad card.  Although it has a low cost, it has very little effect on the game once played.  There is no excuse to play this card in a tournament deck.

What makes a card one of the best cards:

The best cards have the most effect on the game for the least cost.  The following are effects on the game that tournament players care about:

  • Winning the game.  Any card that helps you win the game, usually through damage (like Savannah Lions) or through a combo with other cards (like Dragonstorm) is good.  If its cost is low enough, it is one of the best.
  • Card advantage.  Card advantage is the state of having more cards accessible than the opponent.  If you have 5 cards in hand and 3 creatures, and he has 3 cards in hand and 1 creature, you have card advantage.  This is important because cards are the only thing that win games, and the more cards you have, the more likely one of them will win the game for you.  Cards that generate card advantage are cards like Compulsive Research and Wrath of God.
  • Mana.  You need mana to do almost anything, but be careful not to have too much.  Cards that help you get the right colors of mana (i. e. Sacred Foundry) are better than plain basic lands.
  • Removal, counters, and other one-for-one card trades.  Cards like Counterspell and Swords to Plowshares are good because they often trade one generic anti-card for one special card that could win the game or generate card advantage (playing Swords to Plowshares on a Loxodon Hierarch, Counterspelling a Wrath of God).
  • Cards that warp the game in your favor.  These are cards like Teferi, Mage of Zhalfir.
  • Tutors.  These, like Vampiric Tutor or Diabolic Tutor, are good because they fetch other cards that are good.
  • Situational Hosers.  Cards like Leyline of Lifeforce, which hose, or punish, top decks, see play for that reason.

Savannah Lions
Compulsive Research

The following effects are effects that tournament players do not care about:

  •  Pure life gain.  Loxodon Hierarch is good because it wins the game.  Sacred Nectar does nothing other than life gain, thus it is bad.  The only life that matters is your last life, which is the reason why Sacred Foundry's drawback is ignored.
  • Deck rearrangement.  Index does not bring you any closer to winning the game, and it generates card disadvantage.  Thus, it is bad.
  • Pretty much anything that was not on the list of things tournament players care about.  However, the two on this list are common mistakes, so I pointed them out.

Synergy can make a combination the best.

"Better" is not absolute.
Savannah Lions
Bogardan Hellkite
Dread Return

Which is better, Savannah Lions or Bogardan Hellkite?  If you said Lions (which you should have, after reading the above), you were right... almost.  If you are playing reanimator, the hellkite is better, as with reanimator they both cost the same.  This is an example of synergy making one card the best card rather than another card which is normally the best.

If the combination accomplishes one of the goals that tournament players care about, and does so in a way that wins, then it's good.  If not, move on.

99% of ideas are bad ones.

Some deck ideas just won't work.  Either the combo is too elaborate, or the color combination just doesn't have enough of the best cards.  When that happens, it's time to give up and move on.  Test your deck thoroughly, but don't get stuck on the idea so that you can't admit if it's inviable.

Most formats have a certain standard for viability.  That standard is generally in terms of turns, and the number of turns is the number of turns it takes the best decks to win.  Your deck must be able to either win before or force the game past that turn.  If your deck can't do that, and no amount of changes will make it do that, it's time to move on.

I've tried this, and it doesn't work.
Magus of the Candelabra
Freed from the Real
Vernal Bloom

There's no "budget" in "victory".

Magic Online economics are driven by supply and demand.  For those of you who don't know, what this means is that the more people who want something and the fewer who are willing to sell it, the higher the price.  The opposite is also true.  Supply across cards of a given rarity is generally constant, so demand, or how many people are willing to pay for it, is what drives prices up.  Demand is created much more by tournament players than by casual players, thus the more expensive cards (aside from out of print cards) are the cards that are used in netdecks.  These cards are used in netdecks often because they are the best cards.  (A case in point is the Ravnica block shocklands, like Sacred Foundry.  Almost if not every multicolored deck in formats that allow them plays them.)  Thus, if you want to make a deck out of the best cards, and especially if you want to make a netdeck, you will have to spend a lot of money.  If you don't have money to spend, your playing will be severely compromised.  Given the competition level of tournaments, it will probably be compromised to the point where you cannot win.

There's a reason why one costs many times more.
Savannah Lions
One with Nothing

In conclusion:

The most important message is that if you join a tournament unprepared, you're wasting your entry fee.  Tournament Magic is not casual Magic for prizes.  It is a whole other level of competition, and most decks that dominate the casual room have as much chance of winning even one game in a tournament as they have of losing in casual.  The only way to have a chance of winning a tournament is to use one of the best decks.  There is no shame in copying one from someone else, but if you want to make a new best deck, make sure it can win.


Wrong! by Deep Wafer at Fri, 04/27/2007 - 17:22
Deep Wafer's picture

"The following effects are effects that tournament players do not care about:

* Pure life gain. Loxodon Hierarch is good because it wins the game. Sacred Nectar does nothing other than life gain, thus it is bad."

Apparently you have never lost to a Martyrtron player who sat back under 12 skipped turns from a Chronosavant as you decked yourself on his Howling Mines.

by thejitte at Fri, 04/27/2007 - 19:22
thejitte's picture

I kinda agree with all of the last 3 ( or 1 ) comment(s).

The big elephant is also good for tempo reasons. If he was just a 4/4 he would be pretty bad but the lifegain matters tremendously.

by Lord Erman at Fri, 04/27/2007 - 03:29
Lord Erman's picture

I also agree with everybody else here that this is a very well written article and it was quite fun to read it. About the things that you wrote; there are things I agree and things I don't but I think that you focused a lot on the deck and card choices. Actually the whole article is about that. But piloting a deck is as important as having the best deck. Give the best deck to a mediocre player and see what he does and then give a mediocre deck to the best player and then see what he does. To succeed one must have a VERY good knowledge of the meta, he must know what he will be facing, a VERY good deck(be it a net deck or not), he must have HOURS of playtesting under his belt and he must be a VERY good player in general. This is how I think. The deck itself is never enough. Nice article anyway. Thanks.

by Lord Erman at Fri, 04/27/2007 - 04:04
Lord Erman's picture

After reading my own comment, just like Runeliger, I felt that I sounded like I didn't like it or something like that but I totaly liked it, just wanted to point out some other important issues about serious play. Good job. :))

by runeliger at Thu, 04/26/2007 - 19:36
runeliger's picture

Oh, but overall, an informative and well written article (sorry if I sound like a complete critic haha)

runeliger's picture

It's definitely a huge improvement over your last article, but as you said in the beginning "most basic mistakes" is right. A lot of this article is quite intuitive, and bordering on common sense. I don't question your writing style, it's very pleasing to read, but you say things such as what you'd rather have, but there are tech in decks that allow for people to innovate, heck people thought Sulfur Elemental was terrible, but I'd like to point out PT Yokohoma had 114 Sulfur Elementals, making it the 2nd most played non-land card. Othewise, good article

Very nice read by Caladors (Unregistered) (not verified) at Thu, 04/26/2007 - 17:13
Caladors (Unregistered)'s picture

I play in a store where i'm one of a select few players that accually play the game like you would see on the net, by that i mean i will use good deck and play them well.
But I very much would like others to play in the way but it's very hard to explain some of the concepts that you articulated very well just then.
I like the KISS concept and would show this to others if they were interested in improving there game.

Yep! by Evilshadow (Unregistered) (not verified) at Thu, 04/26/2007 - 15:04
Evilshadow (Unregistered)'s picture

No doupt about it. I have just resently started getting this into my head. Hope it helps others get into the more serius scene online!

w00t by Mitchy at Thu, 04/26/2007 - 13:33
Mitchy's picture

great read man, i totally agree

Excellent article. by AJ_Impy at Thu, 04/26/2007 - 14:40
AJ_Impy's picture

This is much more like it. Good, sound advice with a definite audience, put across in a clear manner. All in all your best article yet, and a good benchmark for the future. Encore.