Vorlons, Shadows, and Captain Picard

Posted in Level One on July 21, 2014

By Mike Flores

Michael Flores is the author of Deckade and The Official Miser's Guide; the designer of numerous State, Regional, Grand Prix, National, and Pro Tour–winning decks; and the onetime editor-in-chief of The Magic Dojo. He'd claim allegiance to Dimir (if such a Guild existed)… but instead will just shrug "Simic."

For me, it was Kird Ape.

When I first set eyes on Kird Ape, a process started in my mind that has kept me nonstop fascinated for the past twenty years.

You see, Kird Ape was a red card but was friends with Forests. Logically, shouldn't a red card be friends with Mountains?

Kird Ape was the first card that gave me any indication that building decks in Magic went beyond jamming every card I had acquired from booster packs into big fat piles; or later, that I shouldn't just play every Terror and Lightning Bolt I owned (even then it was pretty evident that Lightning Bolt was a keeper). Kird Ape was the first card that told me that maybe there was something more.

My love affair with Magic has since mostly been around deck design. The margins of hundreds of school notebook pages vandalized by Llanowar Elves and Dark Rituals, book covers, text files, emails, newsgroups, brain cells: deck design.

I'd guess that many Level One readers are just as in love with making decks and developing new deck ideas and thinking about deck concepts as I have been all these years.

This edition of Level One is for all of you! Following are a series of questions to ask yourself to give your deck (ideas) context, especially as you try to make the break to competitive Constructed deck.

Who Are You?

Make no mistake, an idea and a deck are two completely different things. But, that said, most great decks start with (at least good) ideas.

Hopefully, by this point you know how to follow incentives that aren't just your initial idea. What synergies can you build on? Is your deck built on a particular card or set of cards? How can you make your deck more redundant (so your key cards or idea come up more often)? How does your deck obtain card advantage? Does it at all?

Might you be as inspired by the thought of cross-color strategies contained in a single card as I was? Maybe not Kird Ape as your muse, but maybe Magic 2015 Core Set common Sunblade Elf? It's not just about playing Sunblade Elf, but making sure Sunblade Elf can be all you envision it to be as a 2/2 for one. At the very least, you'd best have Temple Garden, a Forest and Plains in one card, mother to Sunblade Elf and father to its more significant stature at the same time.

What Do You Want?

In Magic, this is generally short for "what do you want to accomplish?"

"Ideas" are the dreamers but desire is the driving doer here. Ideas get our wheels turning to begin with, like which big cards we want to play, or what might seem most exiting.

But having an idea to play a certain card doesn't, for instance, tell us the other 56 cards we will be complementing it with. Successful decks don't just know where they are going, but they work through, and learn from, finding the paths that get them there.

Imagine you have the idea to play Magic 2015 Core Set's Yisan, the Wanderer Bard. You might be excited by the prospect of playing different creatures at several different casting costs as you scale up the counters on Yisan. But that is the starting point, not the end point.

Are you tickled by the idea of more and more card advantage via not just Yisan every turn, but Satyr Wayfinder, Reclamation Sage, Eidolon of Blossoms, Nessian Game Warden, and Kalonian Twingrove for a two-for-one after two-for-one after two-for-one turn after turn after turn?

Or maybe hating red (or maybe hating graveyards) scratches your itch. Maybe you want to play Deathrite Shaman; Scavenging Ooze; Centaur Healer; Trostani, Selesnya's Voice; and Archangel of Thune in a very differently tuned chain-up.

In either case, building your Yisan deck is going to require discipline beyond the germ of that initial card idea. You'll want at least one creature at every drop cost from 1 to N; and where you get to after all those Yisan taps will be two very different places (probably anticipating some very different opposition).

Are You Really Just a Bad Something Else?

This might be the most worrisome question that deck designers actually have to face when working at something new.

Ideas are cheap.

Magic is a game of thousands of cards and many independent and interlocking strategies.

Chances are, there is something quite like your idea already. And chances are, it's probably better.

This isn't a knock against you, personally; but the reality of having thousands of Magic players who've never met each other all working on something else, essentially all together. Just think about how many thousands of players since Pro Tour Theros have put their collective shoulders to the Whip of Erebos in order to produce the stock Mono-Black Devotion deck at this point. You've got a lot of man-hours to outmaneuver!

To surmount this, you want to be aware of other decks' capabilities. Prior to Pro Tour Theros, one of the most popular strategies was a base-black control deck with Desecration Demon, but with Stormbreath Dragon as its playmate; supplementing black removal with red. At Pro Tour Theros, Kentarou Yamamoto put (two copies of) Pack Rat onto the Constructed map for the first time. Today, if you haven't got access to Pack Rats in your black control deck (and probably all four copies), your deck doesn't meet the minimum bar for black control capabilities.

Or what if you want to make an aggressive deck?

You've got a nice mana curve but neither the discard and disruption of a black deck nor the direct damage and ability to win outside the red zone of a red one. If your deck isn't clocked in faster than either, prove resistant to removal, or capable of drawing tons of cards, it's hard to imagine what it is offering beyond what we have already.

To that end…

How Fast ARE You?

The most important consideration for a strategy isn't how big you can go, how creative your card selection can be, or how much damage you can ultimately do, but how big, how destructive, you can be, when.

Imagine, if you will, a format where from one end of the spectrum an opponent can open up on a one-drop; play Madcap Skills on turn two; thrash, pump, and swing on the third; and then fire you off on the fourth; and from the other side of the room there is an opponent drawing cards on turns two and three to blow up all your commitment with Supreme Verdict on turn four in just the first of many advantages all building on each other.

If you're not doing something very substantial by turn four, it's likely your deck isn't fast enough to compete. Because if you don't get there by turn four, the fast red deck will get you first; and from the other end of the spectrum, if you give the WU opponent all the time in the world that player is going to thank you for it in bunches.

Where Do You Fit In?

What kind of ideas does this card inspire for you?

A decade after the printing of the original, all I wanted to do with March of the Machines was to make all my Affinity opponents' artifact lands go to the graveyard as 0/0 creatures.

But Titania's Song in the mid-1990s?

I imagine George Baxter—a Pro who championed the then-odd enchantment—imagined a march of monsters. Fellwar Stones acting like Grizzly Bears and Icy Manipulators bringing it à la Erhnam Djinn. A single big and explosive turn of offensive Titania's Song storming might have been his idea.

But getting a payoff from Titania's Song offensively requires tons of setup. Those artifacts take time to get onto the battlefield. Time that opponents will be using to try to kill us. In order to help Titania's Song grab a little purchase, Baxter needed to build a friendly battlefield. At the very least, he had to slow his opponents down so he had not already lost once the cards he wanted were close by.

He stole their mana and restricted their ability to take advantage of their card advantage.

But the reason we still talk about his great deck almost twenty years later is the way his Prison deck interacted with the rest of the format.

It turns out that Stasis was the big game of the day. A threat creature that didn't tap was a perfect foil to opposing setups, while Winter Orb and Armageddon prevented an opponent from being able to pay for Stasis at all.

How do you and your deck fit in?

How do you not fit in might be a better question!

How do you absolutely, positively, refuse to play well with others?

Prison (US Nationals 1996)

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Tuning your original idea based on what is going on elsewhere in the format, and designing your actual deck to exploit the odd angles, hanging chads, and uneven edges of the collective everybody-else is a great way to help mature an idea that might actually compete with established archetypes.

How do you feel about this new card from Magic 2015 Core Set? How do you think a constellation-themed player feels about its entering Standard this month? How do you feel about ever being a constellation-themed player given the brand-new ability to sideboard Back to Nature.

Where do you fit in?

Who Are You…Again?

The ideas we start with, before we trim our decks down to 60 cards, rarely realize the extent of what we can develop along the way to getting where we really want to go. That's not just okay, it can make available completely new horizons. It is important when going through the process of working from our darling ideas to our actual decks that we are open to the penicillin or Post-It Notes discoveries we make along the way.

Kuroda-Style Red

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Originally, this was a deck that just wanted to port Masashiro Kuroda's PT Kobe–winning decklist to the Standard format, experimenting to see if Sensei's Divining Top from Kamigawa Block could help the mostly Mirrodin Block deck's ability to regulate its draws. It turns out that Sensei's Divining Top was the best possible playmate for Shrapnel Blast (you can flip your Sensei's Divining Top to draw a card, and sacrifice it in response).

Sensei's Divining Top was even more interesting with Culling Scales out of the sideboard—now that was some real technology! A contemporary to this deck being Auriok Champion, the ability to either use Sensei's Divining Top to keep Culling Scales on the battlefield indefinitely (target Sensei's Divining Top and then flip it onto your library before it could be destroyed, in response) was an amazing deterrent to small creatures, protection from red or no.

Whether damaging itself with Boseiju, Who Shelters All to keep Pulse of the Forge online one more turn or having enough offensive sorceries to side out each and every creature against Bribery decks, there were so many concepts being juggled above and beyond the original notion of borrowing Kuroda's winning shell as the centerpiece moved from the red burn cards to the one-mana artifact that was originally supposed to just be a support spell.

By asking ourselves who we want our deck to be, what we want to accomplish with it, how quickly we want to do that (or how much time our opponents give us), and ultimately how we fit in (or not), and educating ourselves so we might answer them in good faith, we can create a structure for informed and more-likely-to-be-successful deck design.

I think you'll agree that the dawn of a new set is the perfect time to try to swing for the fences.

Love,

Mike

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