By Michael Scovazzo

My good friends Monique (of Hipsters fame) and her boyfriend Rob recently traveled out to my humble home in Portland to join me for the Portland team Grand Prix. Seven rounds into the tournament we were 5-2 and set for a bubble match against arguably the three best French players ever to play (Levy, Dezani, and Rachid). On our way over I said, “For those three to be in the 5-2 bracket their pools must be horrible.” A short while after sitting down we had finished steamrolling them on the backs of our much stronger pool. This occurrence got me thinking about what I can infer about my future opponents’ decks based on the type of tournament, the quality of the player, and (in sealed deck, at least) what round it is. The obvious follow-up question is how this should affect my deckbuilding and sideboarding.

If I exclude luck during a match, then it would stand to reason that, in sealed, the quality of the player plus the quality of the pool should give you a direct correlation to record. The argument of which is the more important factor is a discussion for another day (and very format-dependent). Even when you put luck back into the equation, there will still be a very strong correlation between “pool plus player” and a player’s record. Similarly, there will be a weaker but still existent correlation between quality of the pool and record alone, as well as the quality of the player and record alone.

There are a couple of ways to use this knowledge.

Laid before me is a fresh M15 sealed pool. After a few minutes I have sorted out the skeleton of a white/X deck. Interestingly there are three Pillar of Lights in the pool. How many should be in the main? M15 revolved around two things: tempo and bombs. Pillar is super awkward against many of the best draft decks of the format. A good white or red draft deck can play out an almost unstoppable curve without ever presenting you with a legal target for Pillar. On the other hand, Pillar is very good against the format’s bombs, hitting the most powerful of the Kird Ape cycle and being the best removal possible against the Souls (because it prevents the “flashback” ability). In draft, because the decks are bomb-light and generally very tight, I try to avoid ever starting more than one in the main. What about in sealed?

Let’s consider the type of tournament. In a four-round MTGO Daily I would start two. Most of my rounds will be played against weaker decks. Unless I win my first three rounds I am unlikely to run into a truly nutty pool, and even the deck in the 3-0 bracket might just be a strong deck piloted by a strong player. Conversely, in a PTQ I would run all three. To Top 8 the event I will need to run 8-1 or 9-1. If I can get to 6-1 I can count on my opponent having at least one Soul in his or her deck and numerous other quality cards like the Kirds or Siege Wurm. Yes, this build is probably sub-optimal in the 3-4 bracket, but I don’t care about a result that isn’t Top 8 ,so I don’t care about my win percentage against those decks.

The takeaway from this is that in a big tournament like a PTQ or a Grand Prix I think about how I will beat the strongest decks—not an average pool—but in a smaller tournament (like an online daily event) I just want to optimize my win percentage against the field. The biggest thing to watch out for is trying to build a slow and controlling sealed pool that doesn’t have a strong enough late game to seal the deal against an opponent in the final three rounds. Even if this deck will have a high win percentage against the field, it will have a very low win percentage in the rounds that matter.

This same thought process helps inform my sideboarding and game plan during a match. In its simplest form I will use the previous example. If I am 3-0 in a Daily I will would sideboard in the third Pillar of Light even if a target didn’t present itself in the first game. Meanwhile, if I am in round one of a PTQ and my opponent shows me an aggressive deck and no targets in game one I will pull both Pillars. Even if he or she does show me a target I might still pull one.

In the later rounds of a PTQ, or late into Day 1 of a GP, my sideboarding is helped by my perception of my opponent. If I am playing a pro I assume the deck will be lean and aggressive with fewer quality cards than a deck would usually have at that record. If I am playing against a player who makes several blunders in the first game, I will assume he or she has a number of bombs even if they don’t play any in game one. As I get later into a tournament, I am more likely to play around Wraths and rare combat tricks, whereas in round one I will rarely consider playing around Aetherspouts unless I am hugely ahead and can afford to do so. But if I am 7-1 and my opponent seems to be limping despite having mana or makes a weird attack it will be one of the first cards that jumps into my head.

I hope I have given you something interesting to think about. For now this is Michael Scovazzo, signing off.

Michael moved to NYC post-college and soon immersed himself in the local MTG community. He was one of the first regulars of the second iteration of the Twenty Sided Store, where he met and PTQ-ed with the vast majority of the Hipsters of the Coast writers. Yet soon Michael defected, moving from Brooklyn to Portland, Oregon, to complete the traditional hipster coming of age. He enjoys short walks and writing things in second person.

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