If you are the type of person who always picks the most popular deck, this article is not for you. If you usually just grab a stock list of the best deck and grind away to get better at it, you are probably better off than most of us and you will not need this advice. So feel free to explore other articles on this website instead.
But if you are like me and you enjoy searching the fringe decks of a format or try out your own builds, this is your article. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with this approach. It’s quite fun, and especially in an unexplored format you can get a huge edge if you find some secretly powerful deck.
But the main issue with this approach is that you are going to waste lots of time on decks that don’t end up being competitive. That’s just the nature of brewing. A friend recently brought this quote to my attention, and I think it fits quite well:
If you are going to fail, fail fast – Keith Richards
Since failing is unavoidable 90% of the time, you are usually a lot better off if you can quickly identify that a deck is not going to pan out and move on. The worst is when a deck gets fortunate draws in the early part of testing and tricks you into believing it’s good. Then what usually ends up happening is that you waste way too much time on a doomed deck, maybe even play it in your tournament, only to realize too late that it’s flawed in some way you didn’t initially anticipate.
These are 5 signs you can look for that should indicate that your current project likely won’t work out and that you are better off moving on to other decks.
You only win when things go according to plan
Most decks have a powerful and functional main game plan. That’s why the deck exists after all. Sometimes that game plan is just “interact with their best stuff and play powerful creatures/planeswalkers until you overwhelm them”. That’s okay, we don’t all need to play combo decks. But usually, the good decks are multidimensional. They often produce wins even if things don’t go exactly according to plan because their cards function outside of one linear scope.
We see this in Standard with Mono Red, that plans to win the game on turn 5 with creatures backed up by burn spells. But sometimes the deck just grinds people out with Experimental Frenzy. Or how Mono Green Tron in Modern can just play turn 3 Oblivion Stone and blow up the board a couple turns later – including that Blood Moon that was supposed to disrupt you.
For a deck like UG Nexus in Standard, all the games it wins preboard are going to end the same way. But how you get there still changes, depending on your draw and the interaction you are facing. That’s a good deck that isn’t necessarily multidimensional, but can certainly win even when it doesn’t have an early Wilderness Reclamation.
If you win a lot but all your wins are exactly how you scripted it, either your deck is just very consistent, or you just had a bunch of good draws while the opponent didn’t happen to draw their answers. This one is also somewhat hard to identify, because if you always get lucky you don’t get to experience how the deck functions outside of Plan A. So you at least have to play enough to experience those games. But if you never win when you don’t draw your cards in the right order, your build-around fails to show up early, or the opponent has 2-3 pieces of interaction, then you might want to consider moving off the deck, even if your win rate is actually good.
Only half your deck is good
The majority of decks, especially in Standard, don’t really contain that many bad cards. But for synergy decks, this is often not true. They’ll have some powerful pay-off cards, and then the rest of their deck will be enablers that are somewhat embarrassing to draw by themselves.
The thing is, even if your games so far have been full of your pay-offs, you won’t always draw like that. Sometimes you end up drawing the half of your deck that is just enablers and it can get really embarrassing. However, sometimes these synergy decks will be able to cobble together wins out of the scraps of their enablers and that’s a sign that those decks have a really good shot at being competitive.
So be critical of your deck and the power level of individual cards. I’m a person who absolutely adores to play with bad cards (still love you, Snubhorn Sentry!), but too many of those cards in your deck will have a real cost. You need to be honest with yourself about when you’ve passed the threshold where many of your draws are going to turn out weak because only half your deck is cards that do something.
Sometimes I have decks that look great to me on paper, but as I play games, I notice that too many opening hands had different issues that led me to mulligan, and I’d end up with not enough resources to win the games.
This might happen because the deck has a high curve, an ambitious manabase or too many unkeepable hands with lands and spells. A deck like Modern Affinity can’t really keep a hand without an enabler, even if it has a reasonable mix of lands and spells.
It should be added that this is specifically a bad sign for decks that mulligan often and mulligan badly. Decks like Modern Tron or Dredge mulligan often but they mulligan well because their synergy contributes an inherent card advantage boost, such as 3 lands producing 7 mana for essentially +4 resources which helps a lot with coming back from a mulligan to 5.
Struggling to overcome randomness
This one is a somewhat broad category as randomness can entail a swath of situations in Magic. It’s inevitable that you’ll run into streaks of bad luck, but your deck can really show itself depending on how it performs under this pressure.
It might be easy to just dismiss all games where you get unlucky, but here’s the deal: Good decks sometimes win through missing their 3rd land drop. They can find ways to win in games where they flood horribly. And they certainly don’t auto-lose when they mulligan to 5. So keep your wits about you. If your pet project never or very rarely wins in any of these situations, it might just not have the power level to overcome this sort of set-back.
Randomness can also include your pairings. You might have found a razor sharp samurai sword that can cut through the top 3 decks like butter, but if the rest of the metagame are fighting dirty with rocks and axes you won’t stand a chance against them and you’ll have to be able to defeat all sorts of nonsense if you want to win a tournament.
Your sideboarding rarely matches up
We all know how important sideboarding is for the success of a competitive deck, and often small changes in what you include in your sideboard depending on shifts in the metagame can alter your course in a tournament. What you do need to line up though is the number of cards you bring in to match the number of cards you take out.
For some decks, like heavy synergy and combo decks, the biggest trouble might be figuring out what to cut. This isn’t necessarily a bad sign, but it might hint that your deck is one-dimensional and exploitable.
But if your deck instead has lots of reactive or situational cards, you need to make sure that you actually have enough sideboard cards to bring for all matchups so that you don’t have to leave bad cards in your deck. For instance, in Standard you might want to cut the majority of your removal spells against Esper Control. But this also means that you need to have enough cards in your sideboard to bring in against control. At the same time you also need to have enough cards to cover up your Mono Red match-up and might end up with 3 cards that you’d really like to board out against Izzet Phoenix but no room in the sideboard for the cards you’d like to bring in instead.
The same issue happened with the Mono White Eldrazi deck I played at Mythic Championship II in London. Against Humans I want to board out Leonin Arbiter, Thalia, Guardian of Thraben AND Chalice of the Void, but I couldn’t exactly fill up my sideboard with 10-12 cards I could bring in against Humans, when I still needed the hate pieces to deal with Tron and Dredge as well as enough powerful cards to go toe-to-toe with the interactive decks. On the other hand, it felt almost impossible not to overboard against Izzet Phoenix.
When you have to leave cards in your deck that you’d rather not have in several of the top matchups, your alarm bells should ring. Good decks usually use their sideboards well, and if your deck can’t, either get a better sideboard or a better deck.
It’s important to note that I don’t want you to abandon ship as soon as one of these signs starts to show, though you certainly could. Remember always that there’s not much to lose by just picking a proven stock list.
But as 2 or 3 of these signs begin to emerge, your inner alarm systems should go off and warn you that you might be headed towards a dead end. So if you are going to keep brewing and exploring a format, it’s a good idea to learn this and train yourself to be your own worst critic.
I must admit, I wrote this article for myself as much as anyone else. I really would have liked to read this before Mythic Championship II, but now I am passing on the lessons to hopefully keep myself accountable in the future.
I know it can be tough to part from a deck, especially if you just started playing it and have good results, but remember this other saying, mostly used in writing: “Kill your darlings!”