In a perfect world, we’d all have enough money, job flexibility and magic fairy dust to take off two weeks before every Magic event we wanted to play, so we could fly out and devote time to playtesting with friends.

It turns out, however, that not everyone is a Platinum Pro. In fact, I’d got so far as to guess there’s at least 17 Magic players out there who aren’t living the pro lifestyle. Whether you work 60 hours a week, have a family you don’t hate, or just have the audacity to want a social life, sometimes there aren’t enough hours to thoroughly playtest every deck or piece of sideboard tech you see, so what’s a mere mortal to do?

If you’re one of the 17 players unlucky enough to not be Platinum, you have to make some educated guesses and pick your decklist without having playtested every possible iteration. Here are a couple of strategies to lean on when looking at a new decklist when you’re short on time.

For examples, I’m going to be using two somewhat similar decklists I’ve seen going around recently. MTG Goldfish recently streamed with this

While Conley Woods had an article on his own take:

1) What is this deck doing?

The first thing to consider when looking over a new list, whether you find it in a pro’s article, tournament results, or a friend’s notebook, the first thing to do is boil it down and look at the key cards, trying to figure out what the deck is trying to do. Is this a classic beatdown strategy? Is it trying to grind out the opponent with card advantage and sweepers? A one-card combo deck, like Scapeshift?

Boiling the lists down, I’d call MTGGoldfish’s list, basically, 4 Metallurgic Summonings and filler; Conley’s is 4 Dynavolt Tower and filler. Both are playing all kinds of instants and sorceries, and a few cards that give real payoff for filling your deck with those instead of creatures. They both have some minimal disruption, plus some Fatcaster Mages as additional win-cons/value, and – this is the part that really caught my eye – a playset of Engulf the Shore.

Looking at both of these lists, I’d guess they’re following a fairly standard control plan: don’t die, don’t die, OH-GOD-PANIC-PLEASE-DON’T-DIE, take over the game with card advantage, win at their leisure with hard to kill threats.

2) Is this something truly unique, or just a tweak?

Once we’ve figured out what a deck is trying to do, the next step is to compare it to other decks in the format you know. Are there other decks trying to do similar things – play a pile of instants and sorceries and some payoff/engine cards – or is this an innovation on an existing strategy?

Depending on exactly how you want to draw the line, I could see these being argued either way. Look back at the Pro Tour – both of these decks are related to both Shota’s winning Grixis list and Carlos’ second place Jeskai list.

Grixis – Shota Yasooka

Jeskai – Carlos Romao

Looking at the big picture, both finalist’s lists could easily be described as quite similar to these lists: 3-5 sweepers, a couple of fatties, and a pile of instants and sorceries to make sure they don’t die before getting the engine and card advantage going. Shota even had 4 Thing in the Ice, a clear analogy for either Dynavolt Tower or Metallurgic Summonings, as “something that gives you a big payoff for playing 25+ instants and sorceries.”

On the other hand, I haven’t heard of any decks with Dynavolt Tower or Metallurgic Summonings top-8ing any large events, despite several Tower decks performing quite well in the Constructed portion of the Pro Tour. Depending on your mood, I wouldn’t criticise anyone for calling either of these unique, as their main payoff/engine cards haven’t had a time to shine yet.

Perhaps the most unique feature of these two lists is not swapping Thing in the Ice or Archangel Avacyn for Dynavolt Tower or Metallurgic Summonings, but cutting colors, trading more versatile removal for the instant-speed payoff of Engulf the Shore.

3) Is this violating the Prime Directive?

In Star Trek, the Prime Directive is the guiding principle of the United Federation of Planets. The Prime Directive prohibits Starfleet personnel from interfering with the internal development of alien civilizations.

In Magic, the Prime Directive is a little simpler: Don’t Play A Bad Something Else. If there’s a beatdown deck that consistently wins on turn 4, holding all else equal, you don’t want to play a beatdown deck that can’t win until turn 6. If there’s a control deck that gets to have great mana, you shouldn’t register a control deck that has awkward mana. There may be reasons to play the turn 6 deck or the weaker manabase, such as being more resilient against sweepers, better sideboard options, or a million others, but you should be able to point out the gains you’re getting in return for what you’re giving up. If a friend asks why you registered a homebrew when it’s kind of similar-ish to a stock list and you don’t have a good answer, some value was probably spewed.

This is one of the hardest parts, and leans the most on your experience with both Magic in general and the specific format. Try to compare whatever decklist you’re looking at to other decks you’re familiar with: Does one have lower mana costs? That will almost always be the faster deck. Does one have disruption, where the other doesn’t? More removal? Harder to kill threats, or a way to recur them when they die? You’re looking for the big differences between the two decks, trying to evaluate how the difference will help or hurt vs your expected metagame. Anytime a list seems to have more colors, larger creatures, or a higher average mana cost than another deck without an obvious payoff, there’s good odds it’s violating the Prime Directive.

Looking at the Conley and Goldfish decklists, I’m honestly not sure. Both have powerful engine cards that most decks can’t interact with in game one, and have relatively few ways to interact with after sideboarding, and better mana than their three color counterparts, but their removal is generally worse, which could make them significantly worse vs fast decks like Mardu Vehicles. Having fewer colors means they’ll be able to cast spells on curve, but they also get worse sideboard options. Their engine cards take time to get going and don’t immediately impact the board, so they have a higher risk of getting run over before they get going – but if either deck is able to untap with their engine in play they should be hard to stop.

I’m not sold either of these is good enough to be tier one, but I plan to try one at my next FNM to find out!

Brook Gardner-Durbin