Finding the Right Deck for You
Deciding on a deck when approaching a new format can be difficult. Many Magic players have trouble deciding what deck to buy into when they encounter a new format they want to try out, and I believe this is because they are not asking themselves the right questions. If you know yourself well enough, you can figure out what deck is right for you by asking yourself these questions and extrapolating from them:
Question #1: What role do I prefer?
Step one to determining what kind of deck you'll enjoy is figuring out whether you are most comfortable being the “beatdown” or the “control” deck in any given matchup. If you prefer the “beatdown” role, it means you are a player whose preferred line to victory is presenting threats early and often within a game, and forcing your opponent to have answers. You strongly prefer a proactive role in the games of Magic that you play, and you don't like playing from behind. If you are a player who prefers the “control” role in any given matchup, you prefer having answers to your opponents threats until you can begin pulling ahead with plays that are bigger than your opponent's. You don't like taking risky, aggressive lines of play as often and prefer to progress games toward late-game scenarios where it's hard for your opponent's cards to outclass yours.
So ask yourself: do I prefer winning games by playing around my opponent's answers and killing them before they can execute their game plan, or do I prefer stopping my opponent from executing his game plan, then winning with powerful late-game haymakers? Your answer may not be one of these two exactly, but thinking about which one your answer is closer to can be helpful when it comes time to decide on a deck to play. You will more readily learn to play and enjoy new decks that fit your style preference, so having some self-awareness about your preferred role in a game of Magic will lead to more enjoyable and successful tournament experiences.
Just to be clear, the concept of “beatdown” vs. “control” is very fluid as there are times where a deck that typically fills a controlling role has to play more aggressively, and the roles can even change within individual games. In mirror matches especially, it is an important skill to be able to deduce whether you are the beatdown or the control role in varying game states.
I tend to play decks that can morph to fill any role if need be. For the past year in Standard I've played Abzan Control, which tends to be thought of as a deck with a powerful late-game with Elspeth and sweepers, but the deck also sometimes just curved Lion->Lion->Rhino->Rhino and won relatively quickly. In Modern I usually play Splinter Twin, a deck that plays a reasonable control or tempo game that is aided by the fact that your opponent has to consider that they may simply die if they ever tap out, giving you the opportunity to leverage a mental edge over your opponent. In Legacy I mostly play control decks that also have the angle of playing a few creatures that end the game on their own when they go unanswered like Stoneforge Mystic or Young Pyromancer. What these decks all share in common is that they are flexible and have game plans that can change drastically depending on the matchup, what cards you draw, and how you've sideboarded. These decks do have a weakness though: their lack of a streamlined game plan means almost every game is going to be a grind from start to finish, and you will rarely score free wins just from hitting a good matchup. However, during my tenure as a competitive Magic player I've discovered that where I lack in my ability to metagame for a tournament, I make up for it in my ability to navigate games when I have lots of options, so I lean towards decks that play the most flexible and powerful individual cards.
So ask yourself: what do the decks that you've enjoyed in the past have in common? You may find that you've enjoyed a large number of decks that are very different from one another, but those decks may still have parallels that can help you narrow down exactly what it is about those decks that you find enjoyable, which can help to inform your next decision on which deck to buy into.
Question #2: What is my budget for deck building, and how do I maximize it?
This question is most relevant to me when it comes to Standard. It's important to me that my buying decisions make sense financially for at least the foreseeable future, and while Standard has a reputation of being a money pit, I think it is not only possible but actually pretty simple for your purchases in the format to be at least a break-even prospect.
When I'm deciding what deck to buy into in Standard, I look at recent tournament results and pinpoint which cards in the format appear to be a cut above the others (AKA “pillars”). Then I look for a deck that has the most of those cards and buy into it. The reason for this is that “good stuff” decks tend to be very good in a format like Standard where you can win lots of games by simply playing cards that are better pound for pound than your opponent, so the expensive cards in these decks tend to remain relevant no matter which direction the format goes in. This way, if the deck I'm playing ends up not being good when the metagame shifts in a certain direction, I am at least a large percentage of the way towards completing another tier 1 deck. Additionally, “good stuff” decks tend to lean in the direction of my play style anyway, so this approach is a win for me on multiple levels. If by the end of a Standard season I'm still concerned about getting more value out of the cards I bought into at the start of the season, I sell the cards off that are rotating and aren't playable in eternal formats when there is a month or two left in the season and they aren't worth next to nothing yet. I miss out on a month or two of Standard when I do this, but I can just spend my free time playing other formats in this time frame.
Another way to approach this problem is to simply buy the least expensive competitive deck. These decks tend to be mono-colored (read: mono-red) decks that may fall in and out of favor as a season progresses, but the upfront cost is usually so low that these decks are a high-EV purchase. Mono-red in some form is usually at least somewhat competitive, and if the play style of these decks fits you then they are usually a slam-dunk purchase. In a nutshell, if you have a decent rate of prizing in tournaments and make sound buying and selling decisions, Standard gets a lot less expensive than it looks.
Buying into Modern and Legacy is a somewhat different animal. I was lucky enough to have bought into Modern when the format was new and the cards were still very inexpensive, but for those of you who are just starting to think about buying into the format, the barrier for entry can seem insurmountably high. Having recently bought into a large number of Legacy staples, I can offer this advice on buying into eternal formats:
Buy format-defining staples first, as these give you more options to branch out to. If you are looking to get into Legacy and know you want to play a deck with Brainstorm and Force of Will, start by buying Force of Wills. Then look at decklists and watch event coverage to see what decks are out there and what they are like. Do Stoneblade or Miracles appeal to you? Get Tundras next. Does Delver appeal to you? Get Wastelands. From this point, you can continually acquire whatever staples you need for the deck(s) you want to play, and you'll begin to notice that there is more crossover between Legacy decks' money cards than you initially thought. Initially I wanted to play Imperial Painter in Legacy, but the deck was very expensive and had almost no crossover into other competitive decks. So instead I slowly bought staples with my tournament winnings and a small percentage of my cash income and found that I was only a few Tundras away from having U/W Stoneblade built, so I traded some of my other staples for those and rolled with it. Then I found myself only a few cards away from Miracles, then only a few cards away from Grixis Control, then only a few cards away from Sultai, etc. Now I can build several competitive Legacy decks, and it didn't feel like I even had to spend a ton of money getting to that point. Buying into an Eternal format also gives you some level of equity on your purchases, so it's not like your money is simply disappearing whenever you buy a dual land. It is also fairly easy to branch out into different decks once you have a solid base of format staples, which is one of the reasons I think buying into Legacy is one of the best things you can do for yourself if you think you are in Magic for the long-haul (another, perhaps better reason, is that Legacy is awesome!).
Also remember that eternal formats aren't going anywhere. If you think you can wait and get a better deal on an expensive card, do it. I lurked around the High-End Magic trading group on Facebook and eBay for the best deals I could get on Volcanic Islands and Underground Seas for a while, eventually scoring playsets of both for about half of retail. The thing about Legacy and Modern is that the format staples are unlikely to ever be bad, so waiting a little longer to get a better deal on them is not as big of a deal as it is in Standard where cards are more time-sensitive. Buying into these formats can seem like a daunting prospect at first, but if you are smart about it, the financial burden is smaller than it initially appears.
Picking a deck that fits you is key to finding more enjoyment in the games you play, and I strongly believe that higher levels of enjoyment positively correlate with better tournament results over time. Balancing this with the financial aspect of Magic can feel a bit cumbersome at first since the two are not designed to go hand in hand, but actively working to figure out a system that works for you when it comes to addressing both sides of the issue is a very rewarding process that will ultimately help you get the most out of your money and time spent playing Magic.
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