Hello everyone, and welcome back on 95mtg.com!
It’s important to know when you need a break, which is why I’ve taken a short break from Magic after grueling weeks of League play and dealing with matters at home. So rather than exploring Strixhaven, I’ve been able to dive more into theory and collect my advice and observations about playing with open decklists.
Online events have created a new playing landscape. The rules of tournaments have changed, and at the Pro Level we’ve had to adjust to open decklists system. To help you at your next online tournament, I’ve listed what I’ve learned from my years of experience playing open-decklist tournaments.
MAKE SURE YOU KNOW IF YOUR EVENT IS WITH OPEN OR CLOSED DECKLISTS
Your deck construction needs to account for whether an event is an open-decklist or not, so before you play an event, make sure you know if you’ll be playing an open-decklist event or not. Pretty simple, I know, but it’s step one.
Occasionally you can get away with a deck that’s mostly sorcery speed cards or all sorcery speed cards. In open-decklist events, your deck better be damn good if this is the case.
A deck I played that broke this rule was Snow-White Aggro. While I had Giant Killer as a possible instant speed play, the deck lacked a reliable way to interact or develop my board at instant speed. This was offset by the deck’s ability to produce challenging threats and present lethal board states early because of cards like Selfless Savior. However, my opponents knew I wasn’t going to produce more threats if they played a sweeper that took care of my battlefield. This was an OK deck, but it was easy to play against. A legitimate lack of play on both turns made it fall off rapidly, and the deck had a noticeable decrease in win percentage in premier events as opposed to ladder play.
Having no instants lets your opponent off the hook for considering myriad possible outcomes and makes your deck easier to play against.
In an open-decklist event, you want your opponent to calculate the outcomes of their plays against your deck. Putting them in a position where the next move isn’t clear is advantageous to you. The game will be too easy if your opponent can clearly define the outcomes.
For bonus points, you’d really like multiple effects at certain mana values. If you leave up just two mana, you want your opponent guessing if it’s a variety of things, not just “this is Stomp or nothing.”
BALANCE YOUR DECKLIST
We have cards that are functionally similar but have different minor upsides and downsides that we can account for when playing. Examples like Heartless Act and Eliminate, Mystical Dispute and Miscast. While these cards have similar functions, they do slightly different things. Balancing similar cards is good practice in an open decklist. In a format where everyone is playing four drop creatures by all means play 4 Heartless Acts, but if you have equal worry about killing both Goldspan Dragon and Luminarch Aspirant, then split the effects and don’t let your opponent completely off the hook. In closed decklists they have to consider the possibility of both, but in open decklists they know exactly what to expect.
A great example of this kind of balance was seen in Shahar Shenhar’s Temur Adventures list from the Kaldheim Championships.
Some excellent examples of balance here are his use of the Foretell Mechanic and the split of Mystical Disputes and Miscasts. Including a copy of Demon Bolt in his sideboard made it much more difficult to determine exactly what Foretell card he had in postboard games. While Demon Bolt isn’t the most efficient removal spell, it disguised his other cards because you knew he had it. If it was a closed decklist, you would assume he didn’t have it and would never have to account for it when he actually didn’t draw it.
ONE-OFs GAIN VALUE IN OPEN DECKLISTS
While it depends on the card, a one-of will generally have more value in open decklists than closed decklists. If they expect the card in closed decklists, it’s better to find alternative cards to play because you’ll get the value from its assumed presence.
Playing the game is easier when you can dismiss a complete angle your opponent may have. When I’m playing Sultai Ultimatum and my opponent is playing 3 Saw it Coming and 1 Miscast, I may choose to play the game in a different way than if it’s just 4 Saw it Coming. I still may play the game the same if I’m unable to play around Miscast, but it’s harder to judge exactly how to play when there is a one-of that could get me.
When playing around a one-of high-impact card, even the best players can’t perfectly evaluate game strategy or always calculate how much they’re losing by playing around the card. Like the movie Inception, you plant the idea the card exists in their head, and they have to be aware of its presence and play the game in a manner with its existence in mind. It creates a possibility that allows you to make bluffs and represent something they otherwise won’t have to acknowledge. In closed decklists, you only get the surprise value, which will of course win you games when you draw it, but it gives you no value outside of being drawn. When you draw it, it may not be as high impact as what it’s replacing because your opponent is never considering the possibility that you may play it at any time.
People often won’t play around one-ofs, especially in tough match-ups, because they think “I can’t afford to play around this.” Even the best players think this, and often, it’s the best assessment. Moving back to the Kaldheim Championships, I had situations like this come up against Javier Dominquez in the last round of Standard. He was playing Temur Adventures against my Snow-White Aggro and he had an excellent mix of one-ofs that gave me fits. A single Run Afoul which was nearly impossible for me to play around bought him an incredible amount of time against my Seasoned Hallowblade suited up with a Maul. Magic is easier when the games are more scripted and harder when there are a variety of effects to play against. Don’t make things easy for your opponent.
Rimrock Knight was a card Jacob Wilson and I included in our decklist during a League Weekend as a one-of in Gruul Adventures. We wanted another cheap creature, and while it wasn’t a great option, it was close enough that having a copy of Boulder Rush let us do things like freely attack our 1/1s from Lovestruck Beast into bigger creatures. The opponent always had to respect the single copy and let the damage through instead of blocking with their turn one Gilded Goose. We got a few points of extra damage over the course of the event because we had this one-of that we would have lost if it was some other generic two drop that didn’t have a crappy combat trick attached. I also drew the Rimrock to give myself a lethal threat with Embercleave — an angle I lose with 0 copies, and an angle I can’t represent with 0 copies. This is more of a low value gain, but including it came up in our conversations.
Recently the most prolific example of one-ofs my testing team has encountered is our reluctance to play a deck like Gruul Adventures without a single copy of The Great Henge. The Great Henge can be a powerful backbreaking card when you have cards like Lovestruck Beast to power it out. Having even a single copy makes your opponent play in a completely different way. Rogues will often have to play sorcery speed magic, killing your Lovestruck Beast on their own turn, even if it’s naked without a 1/1 token. We’ve discussed playing a single copy of cards like Snakeskin Veil in its place to get the same effect if we were somehow convinced 0 The Great Henge was correct. Snakeskin Veil loses value in closed decklists because your opponent is unaware it’s in your deck. It has some value as a surprise factor, but it’s a low-impact card that isn’t as good without the additional value of forcing a play pattern.
Finally, I’ll bring up high-impact sideboard hate cards. Cards like Leyline of the Void, Grafdigger’s Cage, Stony Silence and similar cards have high impact on the game and can win almost on their own. Vulnerable decks account for these cards with specific interactions and ways to remove them that are often useless outside of interacting with these cards specifically.
When you have only a single copy of cards like this, the sideboard plan against them gets fuzzy. When we play a graveyard deck we’ll have sideboard plans that read, “Sideboard like this against Jund with Leyline and sideboard like that against Jund without Leyline”. Someone inevitably asks, “What if they have 1 Leyline?” Someone else always answers, “No idea. Maybe bring in one answer? Maybe just ignore it and lose to it?” It’s a hard puzzle to solve.
In this example the single copy of the card makes the card better because it dilutes your opponent’s deck if they choose to answer it, or they choose to “just lose to it” and drawing it typically ends the game. I often start with a one-of card like this in my sideboards for league play and end up cutting them because we get a much better understanding of what the event will look like since it’s a closed and predictable event. Open fields with open decklists make this option more appealing.
I encourage the use of one-ofs in open-decklist events.
TRY TO AVOID COPYING AN OPEN DECK FOR A CLOSED-DECKLIST EVENT AND VICE VERSA
The rules are well-known for open-decklist events, like League Weekend or a Championship, and we build decks to maximize our advantages within the rules. For closed-decklist events, some one-ofs or splits may not be the right choices. Don’t be afraid to adjust your choices to align with the event’s rules. This holds more water when finding ladder decks or decklists from closed events on MTGO. Take a few minutes to restructure your deck so you don’t make the game easier for your opponents.
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