Beginner’s Guide: Managing Deck Complexity

Welcome back to the Beginner’s Guide. Once again, it is time for some general advice for those making the transition from Standard to Modern. As always, my intention is to provide a foundation for newer players to build on. Once this is established, only then are you ready to talk about all the nuance that aficionados appreciate. That complexity is, in a certain sense, one of the hallmark attributes of the Modern format itself.

It has been some time since my last entry in this series, mostly because I had covered everything that I initially intended to. However, watching some new Modern converts struggle has inspired me to take to the keyboard and set them straight. I think too many new players are playing decks that are too difficult. To be clear, I am not calling them bad Magic players—many of them do very well in Limited or Standard. But Modern is an entirely different beast which they lack the tools to tame.

Its vast cardpool makes the format hard to comprehend, and the corner-case interactions of older cards can easily confuse rookies. It is critical for new Modern players to have realistic views of their abilities, and to not pick a deck just because a streamer made it look cool and easy. I am not saying that you should never challenge yourself, or that you should only play Little Kid Abzan. I simply mean that Magic is a very complicated game, and you don’t want to bite off more than you can chew.

Defining Complexity

You don’t want to play too complicated a deck too quickly. This generally isn’t a problem for Standard players. Magic is a game with a lot of moving pieces, and Wizards tries to limit how complicated Standard decks and card interactions can be. Anyone who follows Mark Rosewater knows how worried he is about complexity overwhelming newer players. Wizards normally does a good job of ferreting out overly complicated interactions in order to make the game easier for new players to understand. This translates into Standard decks being fairly straightforward and easy to understand. If I show you decks like Mardu Vehicles or Temur Marvel and you know anything about Magic, you know what they do. That isn’t always true in Modern, and it’s a great way to have zero fun playing the game.

Merriam-Webster defines complicated as “consisting of parts intricately combined,” or as “hard to understand or analyze.” This definition provides an acceptable starting point, but it isn’t really useful for Magic. Consider the universal fundamentals of constructed Magic: to play the game, each player needs to have at least 60 cards in a deck, of which you cannot have more than four of any one card (except for basic lands), and each deck is unique to the player. That’s already a lot of intricately combined parts, which makes it hard to understand or analyze the game. Saying one deck is “more complicated” than another is tricky when they all start out complicated.

I find that a better measure of deck complexity is how easy it is play. Assume that I hand you a deck you’ve never seen before, without any explanation. Just leafing through the deck, how hard will it be for you—and I do mean you, this is a subjective test—to pilot the deck adequately? Depending on your answer, the deck may be too difficult to pick up blind. I’ll break the tasks required to pilot a deck competently into three categories: understanding what the deck does, winning with the deck, and recovering from mistakes. Let’s look at each of these in turn.

1. Understand the Deck

If I hand you a deck that you have never seen before, how likely is it that you will know what you are supposed to be doing? How likely is it that a completely inexperienced player misreads the deck and uses the wrong strategy? Or simply has no idea what that strategy is? Consider the aforementioned Little Kid Abzan. One look at the deck, and you know that it casts big beaters and attacks with them. Is that all there is to it? No, of course not. But you will have a general idea of what to do.

Now consider Ad Nauseam. There is no guarantee that a new player will see that the deck combines Angel’s Grace and Ad Nauseam to draw the whole deck and then kill with Lightning Storm. In fact, they might think that Ad Naus is just a draw spell and you’re trying to build up lands in hand the normal way to win via Storm while the Graces simply keep you from dying. Similarly, is there any hope that newbies understand how Amulet of Vigor combines with Simic Growth Chamber? Complicated decks are harder to understand.

Another thing to consider is card choice. Certain cards might make perfect sense to an experienced player, but bewilder a new player. It took a long time for Mishra’s Bauble to catch on because its roles in Death’s Shadow decks are far from intuitive. Similarly, new players might dismiss Tarfire as a bad Lightning Bolt, missing the vital function it plays. Not to mention, say, the function of the bullets in a Kiki-Chord deck. Non-obvious card choices are made for non-obvious interactions, and tend to increase a deck’s complexity.

2. Win With the Deck

It is very easy to lose a game of Magic: just do nothing until your life total hits zero. Winning a game against non-goldfish opponents is already hard. They’re trying to win too, and probably also trying to stop you winning first. How much harder does your deck make winning? In other words, if an average player with no experience of the deck picks it up, can they win a game against a player of equal skill? The less likely winning in that scenario, the more complicated the deck.

Consider Little Kid Abzan vs. Amulet Titan. As previously mentioned, a basic knowledge of Magic will tell you to attack with Loxodon Smiter until your opponent loses. Nothing special. While a new player may understand that the goal of Amulet is to ramp into Primeval Titan, how is not exactly obvious—or in any way normal Magic. Add in all the triggers, odd rules interactions, and mana counting, and it becomes very easy to be overwhelmed. Therefore, it is unlikely that they will play well enough on purpose to win, making Amulet a very complicated deck.

The other thing is whether players understand how to win with the deck. Sometimes, the actual playstyle necessary for a deck to succeed is deceptive. Modern Collected Company-based decks look a lot like aggressive creature decks. However, playing them like that is less than optimal, since their threats aren’t particularly impressive, nor are their clocks that fast. Both versions should be regarded as combo decks first and foremost and played as such, which might not be apparent to an outsider. Similarly, Standard control decks take far more passive lines than their Modern counterparts, and attempting to play the latter like the former is a recipe for failure.

3. Know What to Do When Something Goes Wrong

If the game isn’t going as expected, how hard is it to recover? Put another way, can a new player understand when they are losing? Whether they can actually save the situation is not related to complexity. As I’ve said, Magic is hard. So hard that sometimes things can be going very badly for you without you realizing it. It is also possible to play badly but think you played well. Complex decks often find themselves in situations where they have fallen far behind but it isn’t obvious.

It is very apparent when a creature deck like Little Kid or Merfolk is behind or outright losing: they’re not the ones attacking their opponent and/or they have no cards against an opponent with many cards. On the other hand, Storm can more easily be losing a game to control and not realize it. The deck requires specific combinations of cards in hand and in the graveyard to win, but it also needs to actually resolve those spells. You may miss the window where resolving key spells is possible against UW Control—in practice, you cannot push through all their counterspells where you could have earlier. Such scenarios can prove easy to miss. This increases complexity and the difficulty of the deck.

Play mistakes account for a related aspect. Complicated decks tend to be far less forgiving of mistakes. You can make sequencing errors or miss damage in Little Kid, and it may not matter because Siege Rhino forgives many sins. Conversely, tapping the wrong land for a spell can prove fatal in Amulet Titan. Simpler decks are generally more forgiving of missteps, while extremely complicated decks rarely win without tight play.

“Easy to Play, Hard to Master” ≠ Complexity

The section heading says it all. Just because it takes awhile to really get good with a deck does not make the deck complicated. The path to achieving mastery may be complicated, and the play patterns necessary might be unintuitive, but those factors are irrelevant to complexity as outlined in this article. Merfolk rates very low on my complexity scale because it is easy to understand the deck. However, it contains plenty of non-intuitive interactions and sequencing decisions that make it a hard deck to pilot expertly. These quirks don’t matter to a beginner, because they will still play well enough with the deck to win. Therefore, a deck with multiple expert-level interactions is not by itself complicated.

Most players think of matchups as immutable numbers that reflect the “reality” of the games; Tron is “favored” against Jund, Infect “crushes” Ad Naus, Abzan Company is “good against” Burn. These phrases may be true, but they don’t tell the whole story. I think of all decks having win percentages as a range. There is a base win percentage that reflects how often an average player with general knowledge of the deck will win. Then there is the low bound, reflecting that of a complete newbie, and an upper bound for master-class players. Most decks will have a fairly big gap between their average and master levels; skill does that to win percentages. Decks with large gaps to the lower bound are more complicated, reflecting how unintuitive they are for new players. For this reason, it doesn’t matter how much “play” a deck has once you “git gud” with it. What matters is how easy it is to play blind.

Why Complexity Matters

I see many new players playing decks that they do not fully understand, and as a result, they languish on the low end of their win percentage. Again, not because they are bad at Magic, but because there is far more to consider when playing a Modern deck than a Standard one. A lot of Modern decks are not newbie-friendly, particularly if said newbies want to play a deck that is considerably different from what they previously played.

Players need to be honest with themselves and evaluate their abilities and the deck they have selected. That’s why I left the above criteria subjective: it will vary player to player. If you look at deck and are confused by what it does, how it wins, why it has certain cards, or what you need to be aware of, you should probably put the deck down. The purpose of the game, for many players, is to have fun. It’s tough to have fun when you’re confused and frustrated, no matter how many other players say your deck is great.

An Object Lesson

Consider a combo player switching from Standard to Modern. In Standard they played Rally the Ancestors combo. The deck has a lot of moving parts and plenty of different angles of attack at its disposal, but actually assembling the combo and winning is reasonably straightforward. There’s very little uncertainty about it; once you start going off, you can’t really fizzle. Even if the deck failed to outright kill in one turn, that failure didn’t use up all your resources, so you can try again later. You might not even have to actually combo. Just flooding the battlefield with creatures and winning via combat is a legitimate gameplan. Rally boasts lots of power, flexibility, and forgivingness.

Assume that they took those skills and tried to play Modern Storm. Storm has no forgivingness, no backup plan, and no room to maneuver. You either successfully combo or you die. The deck is utterly alien to this player. Their Standard combo skills will be wasted on this deck. Spell-based combo is difficult even for experienced players, so what hope does a new player have? That player should try a Modern Company deck, since it will be more familiar.

As a less-extreme example, take a Standard New Perspectives combo player. Perspectives does nothing until it resolves its namesake and then draws its whole deck. While superficially similar to Storm decks, once it starts going off, there is no chance of fizzling barring opponent interference. Storm does fail mid-combo sometimes, and knowing how to manage those situations is critical to success with the deck. A Perspectives player might also find Storm too hard, if not as much as the previous player. In this case, an adjustment towards Ad Nauseam would be better. The decks are more similar and the skills translate more directly.

Keep it Simple

We play Magic because it’s fun. Many players find complicated decks fun. However, this doesn’t mean that you should jump right into complicated Modern decks. To avoid frustration, players should honestly assess themselves before jumping into their first tournaments. When playing a new deck, you must ask if you really understand what you are doing. Sometimes you’ll be piloting a deck that makes perfect sense to you without any practice. Other times, you should hold off on sleeving up that new hotness until you have more practice. After all, confusion is not fun.

David began playing Magic during Odyssey block, quit playing Magic when Caw Blade ruled the world, and returned to Modern shortly before Deathrite was banned. He’s made an appearance at the Pro Tour, made money at GP Denver, and is constantly grinding and brewing in Modern.

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