For years now, it had been usual for the big teams on the Pro Tour to come up with one deck. One which they determined to be the best to attack the expected metagame, and which all or almost all of their team members would then run at the event. While there had always been minor disagreements in the past, a team being split into two factions maybe, or a couple of people going rogue, we had never seen as big a division as at Pro Tour Dragons of Tarkir.
The members of Team Off-Brand, for example, featuring Brad Nelson, No. 5 Ari Lax, No. 13 Seth Manfield, and several other well-known players, weren't just split between two different decks, but rather three or four. And four didn't even bring them to the top of the list. Team ChannelFireball had five different decks in the running, although admittedly, two of those were only piloted by a single player. Then again, five was neither an unusual number nor even the largest, as we'll get to in moment.
So what gives? Was there a general shift in the theory that there always has to be the one best deck? Was it something specific to this event/format? Were teams just unable to agree on what the best deck actually looked like, with warring factions divided over irreconcilable differences of opinion? Did Magic change?
"In Magic these days, it's really hard to find a deck that's better than 55% against the metagame," said Martin Jůza, whose team, Cabin Crew, had thirteen members playing five different archetypes. "Instead, there are several decks at this level. That's why it's more important to play something you're comfortable with, where you know all the matchups, know what cards to sideboard out and what cards to bring in. I think you simply gain a bigger edge by playing a deck you've perfected over the last couple of months than some brand new creation. Every now and then, you're going to have a deck which is just better—but it doesn't happen very often."
Joel Larsson, who was playing one of Team Revolution's five decks, argued that cards were more powerful nowadays. "Why are teams playing so many different decks? Because there are so many [strong] decks! You can't break a format anymore." From his experience, it had nothing to do with a disagreement between players. "It's just different play styles, that's all," he said.
Joel Larsson's explanation for the severe split between what teams played was the general difficulty of choosing between so many strong decks.
Meanwhile, Hall of Famer William Jensen suggested this situation might be specific to this event, one of the last under the old rotation model where sets only leave Standard once every year. Still, his team, ChannelFireball's Pantheon, was one of the few with just three decks in the running. "It's basically not a new format," he said, "so people like to play what they've been playing for a while now. You've got to throw some new cards in, but not completely reinvent stuff that's already working."
Finally, a man I obviously needed to talk to was Adrian Sullivan. He had probably written a million words on general Magic strategy and was—at the time—on track toward his first, long-deserved Pro Tour Top 8. In his mind, the theory of the one best deck still had its merits, even if more in, well, theory than in actual practice. "[Hall of Famer] Bob Maher, our team captain, said it was really clear to him I had found the best deck, but it was just too hard to pilot," Sullivan explained. "Blue-Black Control is an insanely hard deck to navigate and a single mistake can easily derail a whole game."
Adrian Sullivan credited that the team knew what the best deck was, but that the comfort of playing said deck still factors into a decision these days.
Hall of Famer and No. 14 Paul Rietzl, one of Sullivan's teammates on Team Ultra PRO, added that he would have picked the deck if he had enjoyed playing it. Elaborating on this, Sullivan said, "If you're going to play a deck all day long and you're not feeling it, you better pick a different deck. So that's why most of the others didn't play my list, although the general opinion was it may have been the best choice in the abstract."
"As for the other decks," he continued, referring to how his team had a total of six different lists in the tournament, "There just wasn't a clear frontrunner among them."
Nevertheless, the most popular deck with his teammates, by a wide margin actually, was Red-Green Bees, which I was told is a blast to play. Because bees.
Who could argue with that?