Navigating Tourneys // and deck design.

Having probably played 10,000 vintage magic games in my life. (In the midieval Japanese sense of the number, i.e. a number too large to count easily... it's probably more like 4000?) I've only recently entered tourneys. 3 so far.

At the last one, I finally did well. I was sufficiently comfortable as to not be scared out of my mind, and eventually managed to get 2-0ed in my last game and take fifth and make a little store credit prize money. As I was sitting there, the lone imposter at the head table containing the top 4 players going into the final round, I was eavesdropping on the winner and runner up sitting beside me. They were clearly very good players in every sense of the word. The winner was on Gush, and the runner up on hard locking Shops with Smokestacks. Their match was over and they were casually sitting there chatting about how to tune decks and how to play in order to navigate through a tourney to the finals and pick up prize money. That concept had never even dawned on my before. (More than just bluntly trying to win every game.)

The shops player was talking about how much he loved that archetype because it seemed to always get him through the initial rounds with wins and position him in the top half of the field so that he could play against the best decks and win money. The gush player was talking about how important the mirror was in terms of cashing. And how he tuned his build to beat Gush specifically. Fascinating stuff.

As a rookie tourney player, I'm wondering how much you or anyone thinks about this. How important would you say is it to have a good game against the whole meta, vs against the best decks in the format. Is there really a difference? Is winning the mirror for a Shops or Gush deck the most important thing? Do some decks try to just make the top 8, while others really try to go all the way? Please educate me.

last edited by Topical_Island

The meta you play in is more important. Sure, the meta is influenced by what's good, but people still have their pet decks. If my meta is predominantly dredge with few PO and I was on mentor silence, I may play "mentor RIP" instead. Likewise if my meta is predominantly shops and I'm the only blue player week after week, I may play maindeck Ingot chewer over the pyroblast.

My philosophy is the bigger the field, the better it is to play an objectively "better" MD. The smaller the event, the better it is to metagame for it.

last edited by Naixin

@Topical_Island The first guy talking about shops getting through the initial rounds to position himself is off base, in my opinion. Its a total crapshoot as far as MU's in the early rounds and you aren't navigating anything because you aren't in control. It isn't like a poker tournament where you can pick your spots or where the progressive blind and ante structure provides you something to actually navigate through. His position essentially boils down to "I like playing a deck that wins matches, because by winning matches I am well positioned to claim a prize awarded based on....winning matches." Not particularly earth shattering.

The gush player is actually giving you something useful in that he is tuning his deck to be able to beat a MU that he is highly likely to face, and highly likely to need to navigate in order to cash because the deck is so well represented at the top of the field. This guy is considering the composition of the field (the metagame) and making decisions based on it. A personal example: I played at the last Battleground event in CT, which is a small event. Ray Robillard had been playing paradoxical storm, and I knew he was likely to be on it this time as well. I also knew that in order to win the event I was likely going to have to beat Ray twice. I've typically been playing Dredge, but I don't like the MU vs the Paradoxical storm, so I decided to play workshops because it's better vs that deck. This is a little more extreme than the tuning that the guys in your scenario were probably talking about, but it illustrates the concept just as well: you need to be prepared to face the decks that you are most likely to face, particularly the decks that are representing in the money rounds.

Ultimately you are pretty much trying to win every game, but if you make good assumptions about the nature of those games and change your deck based on them, you will do better.

Wyatt Earp Effect

As I routinely emphasize, the best performers in all probabilistic fields dwell on process. This is true for great value investors, great poker players, and great baseball players. A great hitter focuses upon a good approach, his mechanics, being selective and hitting the ball hard. If he does that – maintains a good process – he will make outs sometimes (even when he hits the ball hard) but the hits will take care of themselves. Maintaining good process is really hard to do psychologically, emotionally, and organizationally. But it is absolutely imperative for investment success. And it’s more important than how many consecutive years anybody has beaten the market.

@rikter I think his point was that, if one encounters a random rogue deck in the early rounds of a tourney, before the field has been stratified, Stacks seems to have a pretty good chance against it. (Like I ran into a a funny Gush/Paradoxical Tendrils/Mentor hybrid in round 2.) I'm not sure if that is true even, I just think that's what he meant to say. Maybe if you see rogue decks, they are likely to be trying to hate out Gush decks rather than Shops decks? IDK if any of that is actually so. It's pretty hard to predict ones chance to win against unknown rogue decks without knowing what those decks are.

@Topical_Island That makes a little more sense, though I don't know if its true or not. Tier 1 decks are generally going to have enough answers for the rogue deck regardless of which tier 1 deck you play, because the rogue deck is still going to attack along one of the major axes, and probably in a less efficient or more easily disruptable way (which is why its rogue). If you are geared to defend against the strongest versions of the various assaults, you can probably handle the brew.

Ive found that the best way to beat rogue decks is to be 1) be able to figure out whats going on in the first place, and 2) know your own list inside out so you can figure out the lines you need to take as fast as possible.

One way of looking at a swiss tournament is that X players play magic, and eventually the 8 best records make it in. That model for a tournament leaves you with the baseline strategy "maximize match wins."

On the other hand, you could also say a swiss tournament is one in which X players play magic, and if you end the day with 1 or fewer losses, you make top 8. (This is true for most, though not all player counts). This model of a swiss tournament suggests an entirely different strategy. You get to have one loss. If you don't take it, you'll finish higher in the standings and get to play first in the top 8 ... but you have the OPTION of "spending" that loss. It sounds crazy to throw away a game on purpose, but that's not quite what I'm saying. Your loss is a resource you can spend for an upside.

A classic example here is "The Dredge Gambit": opting to run zero anti-dredge cards in your sideboard in a field where you expect a dredge opponent. Assume for argument's sake that you're playing a deck that is very unlikely to win the match without a sideboard. Essentially you're gambling your swiss loss against extra sideboard cards for other matchups. In some cases, this is the right move - even if you DO get paired against Dredge and lose to it.

More subtly, you can spend your swiss loss on playing a less consistent deck. You can afford to take one manascrew loss in a tournament, or one "drew all my Grindstones and no Painters" loss. People are basically making this gamble all the time without realizing it. Deciding not to run free counters means you're spending part of your swiss loss on

Of course none of this is discrete. you're not literally taking a loss to run a more powerful deck, but you ARE changing your odds of taking a loss in particular situations, and you're getting a benefit or penalty for making that choice. This isn't new to magic strategy, we think of cards and in-game decisions in probabilistic terms all the time.

Consider how all of this changes with other tournament structures:

  • Would you run the Dredge Gambit in a round-robin tournament where it's impossible to dodge any dredge players who show up?

  • Would you run the Dredge Gambit in a single-elimination tournament where you would HAVE to dodge dredge entirely or be eliminated?

  • Would you run a transformational sideboard in a tournament where decklists were given to each player before the match? How about Cabal Therapy?

  • How many rounds does a tournament have to be before you start worrying about fatigue from playing a decision-heavy deck. Are you less worried about that if the tournament has a lunch break?

  • If you were playing in an event entirely composed of players you knew pretty well, would you metagame specifically for those players rather than global/online metagame?

Now realize that your typical vintage tournament isn't really a swiss tournament at all. It's two tournaments stacked on top of each other.

One of those tournaments is swiss. You get to take a loss safely, the tournament is probably a mix of strangers and familiar faces - with larger events consisting mostly of players you've never met before, and have no information about. It's multiple rounds, and if you don't play anything too slow, you can expect at least one of those rounds to have a reasonable break between them.

The other tournament is 3 rounds, single elimination. If you've been doing your job you know what the other 7 players are playing, and you have a pretty good idea of which of those 7 players you'll have to beat. Chances are pretty good that some number of people in the top 8 are people who frequently in your region - people who you could have predicted doing well before you chose your deck, sometimes people who don't mix up their strategies very often. Usually it's held at the end of a long day, with lots of spectators, right in your opponent's eye line, making very little effort to hide their reactions to cards they see you draw.

There are different strategies to optimize you chances in either of these events - but you have to pick the same deck for both of them. It is absolutely possible to make a decision to maximize your performance in the swiss at the expense of your top 8 chances, and vice versa.

And this is just one aspect of tournament-specific strategy as separate from magic playskill. Proper mindset and avoiding tilt is a lot harder for most people in a tournament situation than it is during testing ... tiebreaker math can be VERY complicated ... the ability to talk to judges and call them when appropriate is MASSIVELY important and underrated ... bad logistics can undo months of testing ... mind games are overrated, but definitely real ... rapport with unknown opponents, even just generally being a nice/classy player can be pretty critical when the top 8 is talking about a prize split, or you're paired down against a player who isn't in contention for prizes anymore. All of these things are real edges, and magic players love talking about edges.

If this topic is at all interesting to you, I strongly recommend reading Theory Games . I don't hear people talk about this one, but I rate this in my top 2 or 3 favorite magic articles of all time. The high-level summary is that since magic prizes are not evenly distributed, a strategy that optimizes for winning MATCHES is not as good as one that optimizes for winning TOURNAMENTS/PRIZES. You'd rather go 8-0 to win one event and 0-8 in four events, than 5-3 in five tournaments, getting no prize each time, despite winning twice as many matches. It's truly brilliant stuff, Karsten is playing this game on an entirely different level.

Of course, every single thing I've said in this post is absolutely DWARFED by the edge you get from learning to play just a little bit tighter. It's fun to talk about this stuff, but I wouldn't worry too much about it if it isn't your strong suit.

last edited by Brass Man

@Brass-Man Wow. Yeah that is what I was looking for. Thank you.

@Brass-Man This is a beautiful and extremely informative post. I am currently copying it to quote you for later use.

It's less relevant in Vintage than Legacy but "spending" your loss conceding an otherwise-drawn match could be the correct play. Specifically, there's one deck that's most likely to draw - Miracles. Therefore, if I have a draw in my record, I'm more likely to play against Miracles. If my deck is bad against Miracles, it may be safer to take a loss and avoid the bracket that will have substantially more Miracles players.

I have also listened the MUD's player reasoning. Also from another perspective: there is always that person at a tournament that quickly loses chances because he was paired against a weird deck in first round and quickly lost chances to perform Top8. That was really usual years ago when there were lots of budget decks around playing 4 null rods: combo or blue players could be prepared against Tier 1 decks, but then suffer against rogue decks. However MUD is quite strong against most "rogue" decks, being a great deck to start winning rounds.

I also understand the gush player reasoning. Once you assume you have a deck capable of having a >50% wins, and capable of win rogue decks, you can focus on Tier 1 decks. Since gush decks are really Tier 1, focusing on the mirror totally makes sense.

In my case, I don't design my deck to maximize chances of winning random decks. I just try to pack some cards that I'm confortable with, bearing in mind tier decks. Since I don't play a tier deck, I never had to play a mirror (after about 40-50 rounds of tournament and dozens of matches in cockatrice), so I don't think at it at all.

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