This entry is part 7 of 14 in the series Decksplanations

Grandpa (Eric)

By Eric, AKA Grandpa Growth

Welcome back to Decksplanations. Over the last month I have been writing about concepts that will help you add consistency to your decks. The in-depth discussions of each of these topics is critical to understanding how they factor into consistency as a whole. Additionally, each article contains some budget-minded cards that you can use to promote consistency in your decks. If you missed any of these articles I highly encourage you to review them with the links below:

 

Access

Velocity

Selection

 

This is the last segment. Today, we will be talking about how all the pieces fit together to create a consistent deck. I will also share some tips on playing more consistently.

Let’s begin with a quote:

 

“Strategic thinking is like showering; we have to keep doing it.” – Olan Hendrix

 

To persist implies that you have discipline. It takes one to get the other. Consistent habits produce consistent results. Consistently increasing your standards will allow you to consistently surpass your competition. The key here is that you need to keep it up. Sometimes you will have to work diligently for months or years at something before you see any results. Persistence is the functional part of existence, as I like to say.

 

You have come a long way since you built your first deck. You didn’t start out knowing everything that you do about the game of Magic. You had to pick things up bit by bit and the process took time. You would never have gotten to where you are with the game if you weren’t able to consistently improve. I am going to appeal to that part of your personal Magic history a lot during this series. The desire to constantly improve is the single most important part of building high quality decks. You can’t get lucky. You can’t just fall backwards into assembling the best deck you have ever built. The chances of that are nil. Consistency is the only way to get there. Consistency in your habits and consistency in your play increases the consistency of your decks. Hopefully by the end of this article you will have a bit more of an appreciation for all three.

 

The Hierarchy of Consistency

 

The time has come to reveal the Decksplanations organizational chart…or at least half of it. Anyone who has been following me on the internet for any amount of time should recall that I have a love of analytic devices like charts and graphs. I am also a fan of absolutely miserable MS Paint drawings. I especially like being able to combine the two. Voila!

super scientific chart

Isn’t she a beauty ladies and gentlemen? We spared no expense. Don’t pay attention to those mysterious questions marks on the side. Consistency is only half of a good deck. The other half is a secret. (Hint: it’s power.)

 

Do you see how this chart elegantly presents the idea that consistency is a blend of the other concepts that I have discussed in the previous weeks. I really think it is my best work yet.

 

A good mix of access, selection, and velocity will ultimately breed consistency, but that is not to say that they are equally important ingredients. You will notice that access is above selection and then velocity is subordinate to selection. This lays out the hierarchy of each contributors importance to the overall consistency of my ideal deck. This importance is determined in large part by the efficiency with which a particular concept can achieve consistency for me. Casting Diabolic Tutor will get me the card that I need nearly every time I cast it. Frequently accessing your deck, read: tutoring, will give you what you need more of the time than anything else that you can do in Magic. Selection, the ability to draw the right cards and not the wrong cards, is usually better than just drawing more cards. This isn’t always true of course, but Magic decks are often full of high-impact cards that aren’t universally useful. Even Jace, the Mind Sculptor can be a bad card to draw in some situations. The necessary evil of playing situational cards has helped shape my belief about the relative superiority of selection versus velocity, but it is important not to get bogged down too much in the details. You will need all three. They each have role in helping your deck consistently execute its game plan.

 

GG GoT MS Paint graphic

I am really knocking the cover off the ball with these MS Paint jokes.

 

 

But what’s that, you say? “Grandpa, the chart says there is a fourth piece! What’s that down there on the bottom?”

 

For a long time I believed something to be true. I held onto that belief in the face of mounting contrary evidence because the belief seemed logical to me. It seemed logical to just about everyone else that I asked as well. That belief was that I could make my decks more consistent by adding redundancy.

 

I looked for a more perfect formula for my decks. Rigid designs with specific numbers of each type of card. Seven threats…thirteen removal spells…ten ramp cards! I was trying to refine the ratios to perfection. If I knew I needed to draw more answers, I would simply add more answers to my deck. But then my play group would turn a bit and my meticulously defined ratios would fall out of synch. It turned out to be a goose chase. There is no such thing as the perfect recipe. You are trying to balance spinning plates. I spent so much time trying think this through; I was thinking wrong and thinking too much. Redundant.

 

Having a good ratio of specific types of cards, filling out your lists with the best options and then the second and third and fourth best options…that is working harder, not smarter. It is very seldom that I get to the end of a Commander game without having cast a removal spell. So I know that I need at least one removal spell. A removal spell. One. I don’t usually cast ten. So every slot that I dedicate to removal spells that don’t end up being cast in a game, could have been better used if it were something else. Economics boys and girls: apply your resources in the most utilitarian manner. Hopefully, everyone reading this remembers learning about opportunity cost in college. Your deck has precious little space in it. Don’t waste it! Everyone has had that moment where they get to the end of a deck and they run out of space before they run out of cards that they wanted to include. I simply have a different approach to that problem.

 

If you already cast your removal spell and you find yourself needing another one, that is what Snapcaster Mage is for! It is like having a second Hinder, but much more versatile. Recoup and even Fork can work in this space too, but don’t get carried away. Redundancy will never help you conquer your local metagame over the long term. It requires constant, meticulous, reactive adjustments which cause you to undo your hard work and careful planning. That is not my idea of a fun time. Some people love the struggle, I know. But that just isn’t me and after all, this is a column about my deck building philosophy.

 

It is not a coincidence that redundancy is the only one of these concept titles that has a negative connotation. I am struggling to recognize where redundancy is actually construed as a positive idea. Our bodies bilateral symmetry duplicates many of our physiological features, but I would never consider my second lung redundant, even if I could live without it. It is improving my ability to oxygenate my blood, therefore it has a clear purpose and benefit. That is definitionally not redundant. Contrast this connotation with the feelings you get from words like access and consistency. Pretty positive. That is intentional I am sure, although I am not the person who originally came up with these concepts, I can confidently say that their creators viewed them as positive so they named them with positive-feeling words.

 

That was a very subjective argument against redundancy. It depends on your metagame, your experiences, your attitudes, and your preferences. I hate arguments like that. Let’s get to an argument that will be both more concise and more objective.

On Redundancy

In one word: Don’t. In three words: Don’t be redundant. In even more words: redundancy is another possible way to add consistency to your decks, but it has a severe limitation. The other methods I have presented previously keep your average card quality the same or even improve it. Indeed, removing your worst card and replacing it with a tutor actually increases the average card quality of your deck. This all happens very naturally by keeping the best available cards and removing the worse alternatives.

 

Increasing consistency by padding out your deck with redundant near-copies of your ideal cards does not preserve card quality. In fact, it decreases the average card quality in your deck precipitously. It is not always easy for people to understand why this happens, but over years of careful thought I have honed my explanation. It goes like:

 

Remember back in grade school when your teacher would drop your lowest test score? Do you remember how that improved your grade in the class, sometimes dramatically. This is exactly what I am getting at.

 

Look at a subset of the cards in your deck, let’s say threats. How do we decide which threats to play and which ones to ditch? I advocate being data driven. Here is a hypothetical:

 

If you played an infinite number of games in a given matchup, you would be able to collect some useful data. Your best threat wins the game 41% of the time that it is cast. Your second best threat 40% of the time. You have a third threat that wins 38% of the time…and so on down the line until you have a card that you just crammed in there because you love it. That card isn’t good. It has literally never won a game; 0% chance to win if cast.

 

That example is wonky, but simple to understand. If you add up the total chance to win and divide by the total number of threats you have an average chance to win across your entire base of threats. Just removing that 0% will improve that average figure by a couple percentage points. If you remove the 0% threat AND THEN replace it with a card that lets you tutor for your best threat, you will improve your chances to win even more.

 

In real life, the numbers aren’t so convenient. The data isn’t so easy to collect. The rankings don’t stay the same from set to set and year to year. That doesn’t mean you can’t learn something important from thinking this way. Nearly all Magic cards are different. Only a very small number are actually functionally equivalent. Even Cultivate and Kodama’s Reach aren’t 100% identical. There is a small outside chance that you can splice something onto arcane for value. That difference is small, but the difference between a Primeval Titan and a Soul of Zendikar is much wider. There exists a situation where each one is better than the other, but on balance I think most people would rather have Prime Time. It’s better. We have a lot of good reasons to believe that Prime Time is better than Soul. Those are all data points that add up to an overwhelming body of evidence for the conclusion that we will win more games with a Prime Time in play, whereas with a Soul in play we will win fewer. It is tough to put a number on how many fewer, but I invite you to do your own research if you want to further the point.

 

Once you have grasped that playing worse cards is bad and better cards is…well, better…then the path to improving your decks is very short. Instead of playing an inferior second ‘copy’ of a card, just play the best version and use that extra spot in your deck for more access, selection, and velocity. It’s not voodoo. It’s not philosophic posturing. It’s as close to an empirical fact as I am going to get in this series. It flat-out, pants-down, no two ways about it, WILL IMPROVE YOUR WIN PERCENTAGE.

 

Side note: this is how I have come to craft my own personalized, functional-ized definition of “unplayable.” For my Commander decks, a card is unplayable if a better version exists and I don’t need a second copy. If neither of those is true, you are probably looking at a card which is a staple of the format. The converse of this test is very useful, too: If no better version exists and your deck needs a copy of this effect, then that card SHOULD BE in your deck. Feel free to define ‘better’ in whatever way you wish, but for me it means produces more wins.

Playing Consistently

I want to conclude today’s article by talking about playing more consistently. When I shuffle up a deck, I know the game plan that my deck has and I try to stick to it. I try to respond to similar situations in similar ways. Letting the past experiences you have drive your future decision making is absolutely fine as long as you are applying all of that historical evidence rationally. See this article on Bayes Theorem if you have trouble weighing evidence appropriately: Wikipedia!

 

The sentence ‘play consistently’, needs to be unbundled a bit, though. The ‘play’ in Magic is the choices you have about which actions you take in the game. That is, decks with more wiggle room about which of the possible choices is best can be said to have more ‘play’. I try to use this terminology as little as possible because I think that it is confusing and overlaps too much with using the word “play” to refer to the actual actions you end up taking (as in LSV’s article series “What’s the Play”).

 

What I want to say about playing consistently is very simple: it doesn’t mean you should always do the same thing. If you know what the right choice is, do it. If you don’t know, or there is some ambiguity, explore your options! Try out different things, experiment, ask a friend what they think, flip your cards face up and poll the table. Doing the same thing over and over again isn’t going to help you improve if that thing that you are doing is what ends up keeping you from victory!

 

Most of my games end in some version of Mindslaver or Stoneforge Mystic. That may be true, but it is only part of the story. I find that a diversity of experiences and play situations is much more effective for improving my Magic game than repetition of the same game states over and over. I like to expose myself to different play situations as often as possible. This has the added effect of preventing my games from becoming too ‘samey’ over time, which I know is a primary reason that people are drawn to Commander. You can see and do things that you don’t see and do anywhere else. I recommend playing a ton of different formats and a ton of different decks. If you are bored, you aren’t engaged. If you aren’t engaged, it can be very difficult to really learn and improve.

 

I have a massive pile of Commander decks. Some of them are brutally competitive, some of them are pretty embarrassing. Only two contain a Mindslaver. So how do the other ten function if they can’t use my same tired old victory conditions? Well, that is the point! They have to use something else. Restrictions breed creativity. You have probably heard Mark Rosewater say that at least once. I get tired of doing the same thing over and over again just like anyone else. When I shuffle up for a game of Commander, I don’t always reach for my Jhoira of the Ghitu Eldrazi-cheatstick deck. That isn’t fun for me and it would be rude to everyone else. In fact, I haven’t pulled that deck out in about two years. I challenge myself to reach the pinnacle of a deck’s potential success and then move on. The next time I build a new deck I have a new restriction for myself: it has to feel different. I still play consistently; making the best decisions and best plays that I can. I still try to improve the deck to squeeze out as many wins as I can, but to continually improve I have to innovate in some way.

 

I know this sounds like I am controverting my own advice. Variety and consistency don’t seem to coordinate all that well in people’s minds. They don’t have to be enemies though, take exercising as an example. After a few weeks of doing the same workout you will experience a plateau effect. If you can do twenty pull-ups, doing a twenty-first isn’t going to build up your muscles at the same pace you saw when making the transition from one pull-up to two. Keeping a disciplined workout schedule, but changing the routine you do, can help jump start your development. Try getting on a rowing machine, it will feel good to rattle the cage a bit and it will build up some muscles that you may not have been hitting before. This is exactly what I am talking about when it comes to improving your deckbuilding. Use the same process and be consistent, but don’t constantly retrace the same route. Explore some new territory!

 

That is all for this week. Next time, we begin discussion the other half of a strong deck: power.

 

GG
Decksplanations is all about sharing my deckbuilding philosophy. If you want to change how you behave, you must change how you think. The same is true of your decks. My goal is you give you the foundation to analyze and improve your decks. In each article I will share one idea that shapes how I approach creating a new deck.

 

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