At SCG Syracuse earlier this year I was doing rather poorly in the main event with my take on Izzet Delver, which strayed far from the top eight list that Austin Collins played. While watching the feature matches in between rounds, Emma Handy decided to make conversation and asked how I was doing. I explained how I played a mis-built deck and was not doing well. She then gave me a well-delivered, elegant speech that essentially amounted to “play good decks.” Now clearly that is oversimplification, but it’s functional, and when one of the most prominent MTG coaches gives you free advice, it is wise to heed it.

I spent the next few weeks of Modern testing putting all of my time into Izzet Phoenix, the perceived best deck in Modern. After playing extensively with the deck I can’t help but agree. I was well rewarded with a top eight in SCG Cleveland as mentioned in the tweet above.

Looking back, “play good decks” should not be an idea that is hard to grasp or follow, and seems obvious on the surface, yet so many Magic players that have the option choose not to follow it. In this article, I am going to explore some excuses players tell themselves for not playing the best deck or other established decks. Before we dive in, note that the term “established” changes depending on what format you are playing. As a good rule of thumb, if a deck has placed highly in multiple recent premier level events and has a wealth of dedicated content, it is probably established.

Enjoyment of a Deck

Everyone plays Magic for their own reasons. This article is primarily aimed at players whose number one goal is winning a given tournament. To many of the tournament grinders, winning is fun and it doesn’t really matter what they are winning with, just that they are winning. These are the players who should be playing the decks with the highest win rates.

For those whose goal is to have fun playing their favorite deck, it makes much less sense to play the best deck only because it statistically wins more. These players seek the enjoyment of playing their deck and winning with it is only a bonus, and I have no intent to take that away. The trap with this excuse comes when the tournament grinders who seek only to win start to tell themselves they will do better with a deck they enjoy more. This is simply not true; when it appears to happen, it is often because that player has a problem managing their tilt when playing magic, not the fault of any deck or strategy.

Naturally, players that leave their comfort zone to play better-performing decks will be more sensitive to their specific results when learning the new deck and can easily fall victim to confirmation bias to justify moving back into their comfort zone. This I believe to be one of the important steps in leveling up your game: recognizing the tendency to favor strategies you like more, even when your goal is winning a tournament, and adjusting appropriately.

The Desire to Outsmart the Tournament

Innovation is an important part of Magic. Without it the same decks would be played endlessly, and the game would never change. However, innovation has its time and place. Often players will design an untested deck they believe will be perfect to beat all the decks being played in a given weekend.

This line of thinking is dangerous and leads many players to try to outsmart the tournament by playing rogue, untested strategies in high stakes tournaments. Getting an accurate and meaningful sample of data to concretely determine whether a theory-crafted deck can consistently win against the established decks is time consuming and tedious. Many players seek the feeling of being smarter than their opponents playing established decks without putting in the work of verifying their theories.

This excuse is easy to identify early, but I still regularly hear stories of people playing fringe or new strategies and doing poorly in tournaments despite their belief that the deck should be good. Due to the massive commitment to tune and test new decks that are not even guaranteed to yield a playable archetype, it makes much more sense to play an established archetype when playing high stakes Magic. There is also the bonus of valuable content related to the established deck that you can leverage in your testing process to work smarter, not harder.


As I outlined above, it is much easier to play established, proven decks when playing in high stakes tournaments than it is to try an innovate and be successful with a new deck. Following this train of thought, many of the players and viewers of Magic tournaments consider good decks lazy and uninspired. When someone does do well with a fringe or new strategy, they are regarded with praise for their ability to outwit the tournament. Card shops praise the new idea because it sells more singles. Websites get new content to cover, which draws in all the players who also seek to outsmart their next tournament the same way. It becomes a cascade of praise and attention that can be intoxicating to players seeking to grow their brand.

Once again, if your number one goal is to grow your brand as an innovator, then it is probably prudent of you to try and innovate for each tournament you play. Even if you do poorly, you remain consistent with your brand as an innovator. For players seeking solely to win, or to have that breakout top eight, it is easy to be lured in by the attention you get for winning with something new and interesting; but it is less likely to happen. Playing established decks won’t get you as much attention, but will likely yield a better win rate.

Having a Target on Your Deck

This excuse is most common when there is a clear best deck in a format. It is easy to picture a scenario where everyone packs their deck full of the best cards against whatever established deck you want to play, then you end up doing poorly because everyone came prepared for exactly the deck you chose. This scenario is completely contrived and rarely actually happens. Ironically, this only really happens when there is a deck that took down a tournament recently using a strategy people weren’t ready for. Whenever Dredge or Affinity start popping up it is usually because there was a lack of graveyard or artifact hate being played in sideboards of stock decklists. Their success is usually short lived, and the format adjusts rather quickly.

When there is clear best deck a format however, it is the best deck because it has consistently won for weeks in a row despite the format’s best attempts to adjust. I believe Izzet Phoenix to be that deck for Modern right now. Izzet Phoenix is not going to get hated out of the current Modern format or it would have been already. Something else must change, likely printings or bans. If your goal is to win a tournament, I would play Izzet Phoenix for every Modern tournament until something changes. This same line of thinking applies to established decks in other formats. Even if there are cards that beat you, people have an abundance of other strategies to prepare for as well. You are not going to get hated out playing proven, established decks.

Ultimately, it is frustrating to me that players that win with proven or established archetypes are viewed as lazy and having taken the “easy way out.” Magic is a challenging game. Just because playing the best deck maximizes your chances of doing well, that does not guarantee success in any way. However, my goal as a Magic player is to get to the Player’s Championship, and that requires winning.

Heeding Emma’s advice and looking past my desire to be acknowledged as someone who works hard was an important step for meeting my goals as a Magic player. If you have similar goals, I hope I was able to address some of the excuses you give yourself for deck selection mistakes and help you level up! Thanks for reading!

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