In various Magic the Gathering posts, I've seen references to "strong" and weak" decks, and specifically to decks that are "too strong" or "too weak" to be "playable.

Is a deck that is "too strong" one where a player can win after a trivial number of turns based on luck, without much skill? And deck that is "too weak" one with which a game will drag on endlessly because no one can get the upper hand?

Even if people reasonably disagree as to what constitutes "strong" or "weak," deck is it possible to measure "stronger" or "weaker" (e.g., a strong deck will allow a resolution in fewer turns and a weak deck will allow a resolution in more turns)? That is, can these terms be defined comparatively?

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    "Strong" and "weak" is context-sensitive language rather than pure jargon (unlike "aggro," "tilt," "linear," &c.). Meaning is likely to vary significantly depending on who's writing and why. Might help to link some examples you're interested in. – Alex P Jan 17 '15 at 3:57
  • Let us continue this discussion in chat. – doppelgreener Jan 21 '15 at 21:50
  • I have made the question clearer, and hopefully more objective, by asking for the meaning of the terms on a comparative basis, and was wondering if it can be re-opened in its current form. – Tom Au Jan 27 '15 at 15:14
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    Honestly I think it was fine before. You asked what people mean by these terms, not for us to decide about a specific deck. In both cases you're asking about measuring it, which is mostly impossible, but it's fine, answers can say that. – Cascabel Jan 27 '15 at 15:52
  • Also, I'm curious: what leads you to guess that maybe strength means speed of games rather than simply chances of winning? In both forms of the question you led people that way, and you've even accepted an answer focusing on that. – Cascabel Jan 27 '15 at 16:19

The terms "Too Strong" and "Too Weak" are very subjective. However there are generalized categories that most people will agree upon. So for instance a deck that most would consider "Too Strong" would be a deck that can win on turn one with a "god hand". While having a >50% to have that said "god hand". Decks that most would agree are "Too Weak" could be described in many ways as there are several things that can hurt a deck's strength. For instance if the deck has no control over the opponent in any way(including damage reduction) and has no way of winning itself until say turn 10+, then this deck would be considered "Too Weak" by most players.

All this really depends on the player environment in which you are playing. If you are playing with at a major level tournament then your deck will need to be able to compete with the decks expected to be there and anything else someone throws your way. However if you are playing at a local card shop with a group of players that all just started the game and are still learning how the game works you can have a much "weaker" deck and still do just fine and have plenty of fun while you are at it.

I would say most people measure a deck's strength based on a couple values:

  1. How fast can it win?

  2. How does it fair vs other top tier decks in that format?

  3. How much control do you have over your opponent?

Now the desired responses to these questions vary based on the player asking them and what their goal is. Some people play for the sole purpose of winning major tournaments others play for fun because they enjoy the game and have no desire to paly in tournaments.

Also a side note most of my experience is based on the Vintage/Legacy formats. The Strong/Weak deck types will vary greatly based on format.

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  • I'm not sure "how fast can it win?" is really a primary concern; people would never call control decks strong if that were the case. – Cascabel Jan 17 '15 at 6:09
  • @Jefromi aggro decks is one of the biggest problems to control decks actually. In standard, most control decks have turn 5 board wipes. If a deck can kill on T4 - then it kills control deck before it can clean the board. Things changes with sideboard for this matchup greatly... but this is another story. As tempo player I hear "uhh, if only I had one more turn!" far too often. – desudesudesu Jan 19 '15 at 1:29
  • @desudesudesu That's all true, but it doesn't change my point. Yes, "how fast can it win?" is important for aggro decks, and they can often beat control decks. But that doesn't mean that people see a control deck and ask "how fast can I win?" - they're asking "how well can I take control, especially if my opponent is trying to win fast?". And all of that is really just "how often can I win?", made more specific for the type of deck in question. – Cascabel Jan 19 '15 at 1:34
  • @Jefromi if you notice I stated that the desired responses to the question would vary based on the player asking. So while an Aggro player would really desire a fast win from the question how fast can it win, a Control player could care less about that and a great deal more about how much control they have over their opponent. – Chad Portman Jan 19 '15 at 1:37
  • @ChadPortman The confusing thing is that you've listed (1) speed, (2) "does it win?", and (3) degree of control in parallel, as if people are asking them all about all decks. Really, they're always asking (2), and then depending on how the deck wants to win, asking one of (1) or (3). – Cascabel Jan 19 '15 at 1:42

Roughly, to most people, a "strong" deck is one that'll tend to win against other decks in its format, and a "weak" deck is one that'll tend to lose. It's about winning and losing, though, not as much how you win. Note that "in its format" is a pretty big deal - strong Standard decks are completely different from strong Vintage decks.

Why isn't speed of winning a good way to look at this? Well, not all decks with the same chance of winning do so at the same speed. Especially in Standard, it's normal for there to be aggro decks, midrange decks, and control decks that are all reasonably strong (they all have a good chance of winning a lot facing diverse opponents' decks). The aggro decks can win fast, the midrange decks take a bit of time, and the control decks always take a while. But people will quite reasonably say there's a strong deck in each of those categories, and if they try to compare, it won't be based on speed (then the aggro deck would always be "best"), it'll be based on which they think they can win the most.

If you want to try to measure, I'm afraid playtesting is really the only way. You have to try playing the decks against all the other decks you think might be strong (or find others who have done so), and play plenty of matches. This is why there's so much debate about what decks are strongest: it's difficult and time-consuming to measure, so people try to shortcut by testing just a bit and then using their experience and knowledge to fill in the gaps.

Once you look more closely, a few things make those statements a bit difficult to evaluate and measure.

First of all, people's subjective preferences do come into play, and on top of that, they'll tend to exaggerate, or at least be a bit cavalier with claims. People can also have objective preferences; they might be better at playing with some types of decks than others, and thus consider them stronger.

Next, "tend to win" might not indicate as large of a probability as you'd think. For example, someone might reasonably say "that deck is really strong" when it's going to win 55% of its games against other decks. That may not really sound that strong, but on the other hand, if a decent number of people play the deck at a tournament, that makes it likely that a large fraction of the top N players of the tournament will be ones playing that deck.

So if people are talking about "strong" and "weak" in the context of a tournament (or serious competitive play in general), the difference between the two might be relatively small, and hard to discern unless you're a fairly skilled player and have played plenty of games with the decks in question (or otherwise have data). If you want to measure strength of strong decks, this is pretty much the only way - look at a large number of games played by a large number of people, figure out who's playing the same decks (or similar enough to group together, at least), and see. (On the other hand, determining that a deck is very weak is pretty easy; you'll tend to notice that it loses all the time.)

Perhaps most importantly, "in its format" covers up a ton of complexity. You might think that just picking a format pins everything down, but in reality there's room for a lot of variation in the metagame: what kinds of decks everyone chooses to play. Generally, a given deck will be strong against some decks but weak against others. Depending on which of those decks are being played by more people, the deck could turn out to be strong or weak.

If you're talking about casual games, the range of power is enormous, especially when people have limited budgets and are perhaps building decks to suit their preferences, not just to be competitive. A deck that's "strong" among you and those you play with might be seen completely differently by another group of people. Of course, in casual play, you're also likely to be a bit less concerned with "playable" and eking out small edges in win probability, and more concerned with just having fun.

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What constitutes a strong or weak deck depends on a few different things, the biggest are the format (Standard, Modern, etc.) and somewhat related to that the metagame. What ends up defining a strong deck is one that has a good chance of winning most of its matches, and a weak one is one that doesn't have a good chance of winning.

The biggest thing that effects how strong a deck is is the format you are playing. A deck that is strong in for example Legacy like Dredge isn't going to be as strong in Modern or Standard just because many if not all of the cards aren't legal, and similar style decks can be played but they are going to be weaker due to having less choices in cards.

Another major factor in the strength of a deck is the metagame. The metagame is in the simplest terms what decks people are playing. The effects how strong a deck is because if you have deck that is pretty good in a vacuum but there is another deck that is being played heavily that beats it 70% of the time the deck that will be considered weaker and end up being played less. Later if a new deck starts being played that beats the 'strong' deck but the 'weak' deck you have beats this new deck your deck will suddenly be considered strong.

These definitions of what is "strong" or "weak" can change quickly, sometimes from week to week depending on the results of various tournaments. For example if one deck does really well in a Pro Tour one week the next week at a Grand Prix there might be a larger percentage of that deck being played, therefore a deck that normally isn't very strong but happens to be good against that deck could be the right call for playing in the GP.

Now for decks that are "too strong" or "too weak", what exactly are those? Generally if a deck (or decks designed specifically just to beat that deck) are being played by an overly large percentage of the metagame that deck might be considered "too strong". If this happens one or more cards from the deck may end up getting banned. Examples of this are decks like Caw Blade from Zendikar-Scars Standard, and when UR Storm when Modern was first announced as a format. In both of these cases in order to make the metagame more varied Wizards ended up banning several cards from both decks. For Caw Blade these bannings pretty much killed the deck, and for UR Storm it is still a deck, and it works fairly well, but it is not a top deck like it used to be.

For decks that are "too weak" this mostly just means that they tend to lose to most of the decks that are being played. It is possible for a "too weak" deck to win occasionally, but most of the time it is going to lose. A deck could be too weak for several reasons, usually because a few cards that it would need to be good aren't in the format at the time or the current top decks could just have a really good match up.

Now these definitions are based solely on tournament play, for more casual play what is "strong" and what is "weak" can vary widely. For example at one kitchen table Lightning Strike might be considered "strong" but at another where they play with Lightning Bolt it might be considered "weak".

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