Pick, Ban, Win: A Guide to Tournament Preparation
“80% of the work I do for a tournament is just preparation” -Mr. Akamarured, NGE Season 2 EU Grand Champion.
With the NGE Season 3 qualifiers going on, now is a great time to jump into the Shadowverse competitive scene. Yet even to an experienced ladder player, the many nuances of tournament play can easily seem quite daunting. One of the most important differences between tournament and ladder play is the sheer amount of preparation you’ll have to do to be successful (unless you’re just incredibly lucky). So good thing you’re here, because that’s exactly what we’re going to help you improve at in this article!
Play vs. Preparation
Let’s illustrate just how important preparation is with some maths.
The goal of preparation is to create as many favoured matchups for yourself as possible throughout the tournament, so we can analyse its importance by comparing the effect of having favoured matchups vs. better play on your chances of winning.
Say that the difference in winrate between a better player and a worse player is 10% for every single deck. Say also that the difference in winrate between a favoured matchup and an unfavoured matchup is 20%.
In a 2 deck no ban conquest format (like JCG, but more importantly because the ban complicates the math), the chances of a better player with both decks unfavoured and a worse player with both decks favoured winning each round would differ by
= 29.6%, in favour of the worse player with better favoured decks.
With only one deck favoured, the difference is still
=20%. (this is only an estimate, since pick order matters)
With a ban, the chances become even more heavily stacked in favour of the player who prepares better, and knows what to ban and pick first.
“But Mr. MLAQTS!” you whine. “Your initial assumptions were gross oversimplifications of reality!”
While I must admit that such is true, I actually chose to err on the safer side of estimates. For most tournament players (assuming that they are already familiar with the basic workings of their decks), experience and practice can only improve winrates in already close matchups, and even then by about just 8% at most. Meanwhile, the most polarized matchups (e.g. Aggro Sword vs. D-Shift) have winrate differences as great as 70% if both players are familiar with their decks.
For those who still don’t trust the math, HSK Akamarured believed in the value of favourable matchups so much that he decided to bring D-Shift (a notably difficult deck) to his final round in the NGE Season 2 Grand Finals last month after having only played it for a week, because he anticipated that his opponent would bring all control decks (a very favourable matchup for D-Shift). His prediction turned out correct, and Mr. Aka’s lineup was able to secure him the position of NGE Season 2 Grand Champion.
“Literally the only reason I lost is because it was closed decks. I hate closed decks” -also Mr. Akamarured*
Tournaments, like people (and unlike macarons), come in various shapes and sizes. It is important therefore to learn about the differences between each, since your preparation will of course also differ accordingly.
NGE uses a 3 deck 1 ban conquest format for its qualifiers, so go ahead and skip this whole section if that’s all you care about (or just read it anyway for culture).
Numbers and Bans
The distinction between tournaments which will likely have the greatest effect on your preparation is the number of decks per lineup, and how many bans are allowed.
Since most metas are dominated by just one or two of the best decks, a format with more decks will require you to bring less optimized lists. It also becomes harder to target a specific deck or archetype with your lineup, since it becomes increasingly hard to find multiple decks which have a similar gameplan or matchups.
Bans are generally implemented to encourage lineup strategies which target a specific type of deck. In formats without bans, it is usually optimal to just bring decks with high winrates across the board, like those optimized for ladder play.
NGE uses a 3d1b format for its qualifiers, while JCG uses 2d0b. Most casual tournaments in the west follow after NGE in using 3d1b. In later rounds, both NGE and JCG switch to formats with more decks and bans.
Closed vs. Open
Yet another major difference between tournaments is whether decklists are “closed” or “open”. In closed decklist formats, players are unable to see the exact decklists of the opponent, while in open they are typically revealed to each player before bans.
In terms of preparation, an open decklist format discourages bringing odd decks or tech choices in an attempt to surprise the opponent. One also gains access to more information in deciding bans, which encourages bringing lineups to target a single strong deck or archetype.
Conquest vs. LMS
Conquest is a format in which each player must win one game with each of their decks to win the round, while in Last Man Standing, one must ensure that the opponent loses once with each of their decks.
While the LMS format is rare, one is encouraged to just bring strong decklists with good matchups across the board, since the winning player stays on the same deck. Meanwhile in Conquest, lineups targeting a particular deck can be very effective, since each player must win with both decks to win the series.
Qualifiers vs. Finals
Larger tournament series like JCG and NGE are divided into qualifier and final rounds. Generally, bringing consistently good decks will prove a better strategy in qualifier rounds, while one is more encouraged to anticipate and snipe particular lineups in finals rounds, especially in formats like NGE where one is allowed to bring a different deck against each opponent. Highrolling lineups may also prove more effective in finals rounds, since less matches are to be played overall, which optimizes the chances of each deck actually highrolling through every round.
3d1b Open Conquest
Three deck one ban open conquest format is the one used by NGE, and considered by many to have the greatest strategic depth of any format. In this format, each player brings three decks to the event. Before each series, each player is able to see the decks of the other player, and to pick one to ban accordingly.
Each player must then play until each deck wins once. A deck that has already won may not be played again. The first player to win twice takes the series.
What to Bring
The primary consideration in deciding what decks to bring to a tournament is to give yourself as many favourable matchups throughout the tournament. Therefore, the two primary strategies which immediately come to mind are to either bring three decks which are good across the entire meta, or to try and counter a specific deck or archetype which you anticipate many people will bring.
In metas where only one deck is dominant, it is generally good to find counters to that deck as soon as possible, since almost everyone will be bringing it, and many will not even be experienced because they expect the deck to be banned. This is what HSK Akamarured did in Season 2, bringing Ramp Dragon, Nephthys Shadow, and Phantom Cat Neutral Blood in an effort to snipe out Spawn of the Abyss Neutral Blood. As we know, he was successful.
As the season progresses though, counters to the dominant deck will become more prevalent, and such a strategy becomes less effective as more people begin to bring counter decks rather than the deck you are trying to target itself. This is why for such a strategy to be successful, it is essential to search for counter decks early on, and to keep them secret for as long as possible.
Meanwhile in metas with more than one very dominant deck (such as right now, with aggro sword and PDK both extremely popular), it is usually a better idea to bring a more widely adapted lineup. It is usually impossible to have positive winrates against all of the most prevalent decks in a meta, because otherwise that deck would just be the new best deck in the meta. In such metas, bringing the most prevalent decks themselves is generally a good idea.
The Third Deck
An important and often underemphasized consideration in any lineup is what to bring for your third deck. Generally, your third deck should have a similar gameplan to your other two, though bringing three decks of the same archetype (e.g. 3x aggro) may be unwise because the archetypes interact with other in a rock-paper-scissors-like dynamic, making your lineup very vulnerable to the right counter.
This may be less of a problem in metas where very few (less than three) viable decks of a certain archetype exist, in which case it may be fine to bring three decks of the archetype which loses against the missing one. For example, if there were only 2 viable control/anti-aggro decks in existence, a triple aggro lineup may be effective, since you are almost guaranteed to always face at least one deck that is weak against aggro.
If you are bringing both of the most prominent two decks in the meta, your choice of third deck should be based on the matchup of the former two decks against each other. For example, I believe Aggro Sword right now to be slightly favoured against PDK. Thus, I would want to bring a lineup targeting PDK, with the intention of always banning Aggro Sword. Thus, I may choose something like D-Shift Rune as my third deck, and tech my own PDK to be more effective in the mirror.
On the other hand, if I believed PDK to be favoured against Aggro Sword, I could instead opt to bring something like Neutral Forest as my third deck, and tech my own Aggro Sword to be more effective in the mirror, with the intention of always banning PDK.
If the two most prominent decks in the meta have an approximately even matchup, one should consider if there is any third deck that is extremely favoured against either. For example, if I believed Neutral Forest to have an 80% winrate against Aggro Sword, and D-Shift Rune to have a 60% winrate against PDK Dragon, I may opt to bring a lineup targeting Aggro Sword even if Aggro Sword were slightly favoured against PDK Dragon, because my lineup would still be more favoured against Aggro Sword overall than the other lineup would be against PDK Dragon.
Finally, one should not tunnel vision on countering one particular deck unless the matchup is extremely favoured for one side. If you opt to bring a deck with a good matchup against a specific deck, and bad matchups against everything else, then you’ll be awfully screwed against an opponent who does not bring the deck you’re targeting, or if you somehow lose the intendedly favoured match because of bad luck.
What to Ban/Play
Once you’ve decided what to bring to a tournament, deciding what to ban is fairly easy because you should have already planned it out in preparing your lineup. In general, you should be banning any deck which has a positive winrate against two or more of your own.
If an opponent brings two decks which seem favoured against your lineup, you should leave up the one with a worse winrate to either of your decks, and try to queue into that matchup. Try to predict what your opponent will ban before making your own; this will also help you predict which deck the opponent will play first, which you can use in deciding in what order to play your own decks.
After bans, if the opponent still has one deck that is highly favoured against one of your own, you must try your best to predict whether he will play that deck first or second. If you predict correctly, you will be able to queue your unfavoured deck into the other matchup, increasing your chances of winning that matchup and subsequently the series.
Predicting your opponent’s pick order is a skill developed over time, but if you cannot get into your opponent’s mind, you should in general try to pick the deck with the most unfavoured matchup against either opponent deck first, to minimize your chances of queuing into that matchup. Conversely, if you have one deck with an extremely favoured matchup, you should queue that deck first so that you guarantee yourself the favoured matchup, even if you lose to the opponent’s other deck first.
Tournament preparation is a difficult skill which is improved by experience, but we hope that this guide can at least help you get started in recognizing what is important to consider. No amount of article reading can make you into an expert though, and the best way to improve is just by trying it yourself. Now is an excellent opportunity with week two of NGE Season 3’s Open Qualifiers occurring next weekend. We highly encourage you to register for it here, as well as joining the HSK Discord here, where you can find more resources for improving as a Shadowverse player,
and as a human being in general wait no jk we’re all degenerate monkeys.