Deckbuilding: Deck Comparison and Winning Ratios

A good deck needs to be able to not only have a good chance of winning overall, but it also needs to have a good chance of winning against the most popular decks. If "Draw-Go" (a popular blue control deck) is the dominant deck, playing a combination deck such as Prosperous Bloom is usually a bad idea. Even if Bloom may win about 75% of the time against all the other decks, it is no good if it cannot beat the most popular deck consistently. Of course, no one deck is usually ever dominant.

To date, only twice was there a deck that truly dominated the tournament scene. In November-December of 1998, after the release of the Urza's Saga standalone expansion, a completely overpowered combo deck based around a card called Tolarian Academy(1) emerged. This was by far the best deck, beating everything else hands down. In the summer of 1996, a deck based around Necropotence(2) gave the card popularity, and the combined elements of total resource destruction made this deck dominant. Mainly, a dominant situation only existed with these two decks. Otherwise, there have been popular decks, but never a dominating deck quite the way these decks dominated. That being said, what is the best way to see how effective your deck is against a field of other decks?

The first obvious step is to know how to play your deck as effective as possible. By playing the deck against various other decks, you need to learn every deck's strengths and weaknesses. Once you know that, you can capitalize on these areas and play your deck to maximum effectiveness. After you've done all your playtesting, you need to figure out the most popular decks and make sure your deck (and/or sideboard) can handle them. If you keep losing to the most popular decks, you cannot possibly win a tournament.

For this purpose, I played my red control deck many games in order to demonstrate whether playing it in a tournament would be a good idea. I came to the conclusion that it is a fairly good deck, though it can by no means handle the competition hands down. The players I played against had different decks. Because of this, the deck's performance is better analyzed by viewing the particular decks I played against. After playing thirty games against various players with various decks, this is how I fared against all the players, and the most common decks:

Vincent Matty Mike Robert Jay Willie Andre Thiago
3-0 2-0 2-0 3-2 3-2 4-5 0-2 0-2
100% 100% 100% 60% 50% 44% 0% 0%

(A = Aggressive Deck, C = Control Deck, M = Miscellaneous, O = Combo Deck)

Maiden-C Necro-C Black-A Stompy-A Death-C Sligh-A Andre-M
2-0 3-2 3-2 3-3 1-2 0-3 0-2
100% 60% 60% 50% 33% 0% 0%

Here are brief explanations for these decks: The first deck was a blue deck based around the opponent having lots of cards in hand through various methods and taking damage from Iron Maiden(3) because of it. The second deck was a modern version of the Necropotence deck, designed around destroying the opponent's hand and creatures, gaining life and drawing cards. The third deck was a very fast black weenie swarm deck. The fourth deck was an even faster green weenie swarm deck nicknamed "Stompy". The fifth deck was a deck called "Death" with many different creatures, Survival of the Fittest(4) and Living Death(5). That lets the player stuff his discard pile full of creatures then bring them into play.

The sixth deck was Sligh. Sligh is an aggressive red weenie swarm and direct damage deck. The name originated from a man named Paul Sligh who created a red control deck during the summer of 1996. The deck evolved into the mega-aggressive modern day weenie swarm deck, but the name stayed. The last deck was Andre's own creation: a black and white deck based around Remembrance(6), Phyrexian Reclamation(7) and many effective creatures. This proved to be very effective for him.

My overall win ratio was 17 to 13. The fact that I won 57% of the games I played is nice to know, but not too useful. How I performed against the average deck is more useful. By averaging how I did against each deck and putting it together, I would have a rough estimate of how I would do at a tournament against an average field. The result is that I win 43% against the average deck. This does not take into account the sub-standard decks I play against every now and then, as I would never expect to play against anything like that in a tournament. A player with little experience is not likely to pay the admission fee for a tournament, when he is more likely to just play for fun. That being said, it is not a good idea to include those wins, as inflating my win ratio does not help me as a player. Even still, a much larger number of games are necessary to get a better approximation for my true win percentage.

This procedure assumes there is an even field, however. Perhaps I would end up having a higher chance of winning if there were more decks in the tournament that I had a higher chance of winning against! Given a field of 50% Iron Maiden decks, 25% black weenie swarm decks, 15% Sligh, and 10% Death, I would have a higher chance of winning. Of course, Death and Sligh are a lot more popular than Maiden and black swarm. Given two tournament scenes with different percentages of these decks, with my deck being the only red control deck, I will give a sample situation. Recall that finding the approximate chance of winning the tournament consists of multiplying the chance of winning against a deck by the chance of playing the deck, and adding up that total for every deck. I can put this into mathematical notation as a Riemann sum because I am summing up the chance of winning N different decks multiplied by the chance I will play against them:

F(K) represents the amount of the deck in the field

C(K) represents your chance of winning against the given deck

Deck Name Situation #1 (Good) Situation #2 (Bad)
Survival/Living Death 10% * 33% = 3.3% 50% * 33% = 16.7%
Red "Sligh" 15% * 0% = 0% 25% * 0% = 0%
Iron Maiden 50% * 100% = 50% 10% * 60% = 6%
Black Speed Weenie 25% * 60% = 15% 15% * 60% = 9%
Total Win Percentage 68.3% 31.7%

Therefore the amount of each deck at the tournament scene can drastically affect my chance of winning the tournament. The Riemann sum is an important idea here, as it is used to sum up all the possibilities into a total chance amount which represents the probability of me winning the hypothetical Magic tournament.


  1. Tolarian Academy: Legendary Land (there may only be one in play at a time). Tap for one blue mana for every artifact you have in play.
  2. Necropotence: Enchantment, BBB. Skip your draw phase. Pay 1 life: Draw a card during your discard phase.
  3. Iron Maiden: Artifact, 3. All opponents take 1 damage at the end of their upkeep for every card in their hand more than four.
  4. Survival of the Fittest: Enchantment, G. G: Discard a creature to search your deck for any creature, show it to all players, and put it in your hand.
  5. Living Death: Sorcery, 3BB. Switch all creatures in play with those in the discard piles.
  6. Remembrance: Enchantment, 3W. Whenever one of your creatures leaves play you can search your deck for another copy and put it in your hand.
  7. Phyrexian Reclamation: Enchantment, B. 1B: Pay 2 life to take a creature from your discard pile and put it in your hand.

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