How Low Can You Go?

Posted in Beyond the Basics on October 19, 2017

By Gavin Verhey

When Gavin Verhey was eleven, he dreamt of a job making Magic cards—and now as a Magic designer, he's living his dream! Gavin has been writing about Magic since 2005.

How often should you be playing with Carnage Tyrant?

The mighty six-mana 7/6 has been the scourge of many an opponent. Control players gnash their teeth as they stare down a huge Dinosaur they can't deal with. Even against midrange or aggressive matchups, the mighty Dinosaur holds the board, not allowing most removal to take care of it. One of the best ways to even the Carnage Tyrant score is to cast your own. You don't need a specific deck to make Carnage Tyrant good; this Dinosaur is plenty strong all on its own.

It's a game-changer. A total powerhouse. A complete dino-doozy.

So, that seems pretty straightforward then. You're going to sleeve up your four copies and put it in every deck with green mana from now until when it rotates. It's as simple as that, right? Article over, end of story?

Well, as you may have suspected, that's not quite the case.

It's true that Carnage Tyrant is a powerful card—and there are some decks it absolutely belongs in. But that doesn't also mean that it should just go into any deck. It's a six-mana card, and even though it may be strong when you get it out, you could be hampering your entire deck trying to get there in the process.

Let's dive a bit deeper into this.

Looking at Curves

When you're building a deck, you should have a mana curve in mind. I've touched lightly on some of this before, especially with an eye toward Limited. But whether you're looking at Limited or Constructed Magic, you should be asking yourself this question: How low can you go?

Or, conversely, it can also be right to ask the not-quite-as-catchy "How high can you go?"

Some decks will want to hit six mana and slam down a Tyrant, absolutely. But it's easy to start shoehorning it into places where it doesn't belong.

Back when I wrote ReConstructed, I'd look at tons and tons and tons of reader-submitted decklists each and every week. It was great, because seeing all these decks really gave me a feel for how people all over the world chose what to put into their decks. And, while there were many excellent ideas generated through this column, one of the largest (if not the largest) deck-building mistake I would see in these decks, repeated, time and time and again, was this: playing cards at a mana cost that their deck should not be concerning itself with.

In essence, they were making their whole deck composition worse to accommodate for a few choice cards there was a lot of buzz about.

There was everything from aggressive red decks featuring Inferno Titan, to control decks with a full set of Monastery Swiftspear.

Why is this problematic? We'll get there—but first, with that question on the stack, let's talk about Booster Draft. (And I promise this will be relevant to the discussion at hand.)

Costs in Booster Draft

When I'm building a deck in Limited, I'm not just looking for a pile of good cards: I'm looking for a deck. I would love to have synergies (especially in a tribal set like Ixalan!), but at the very least, I want to know what my deck is trying to do.

Is my deck defensive? Is my deck offensive? Do I want to trade creatures in combat or not? The kinds of cards I'm going to put into my deck very much fall out of those questions.

Okay. So. How often are you playing Carnage Tyrant here?

Certainly, Carnage Tyrant will make a large portion of your Draft decks. If you're playing a midrange creature strategy, which many green decks are doing in Ixalan Booster Draft, then you should absolutely include it.

But what if you're playing an extremely aggressive green-blue Merfolk deck?

Your plan is to play some strong and evasive cheap creatures, and use cards like Watertrap Weaver and One With the Wind to force through a bunch of damage. Your curve tops out at four mana, with a couple powerhouses like Tempest Caller and Ripjaw Raptor.

Should you play the Carnage Tyrant you drafted in this deck?

It doesn't fit your primary game plan of playing a lot of cheap, small cards and killing your opponent early. Additionally, if your curve ends at four mana, you can pretty safely cut a land or maybe even two from your deck to make room for more Merfolk goodies. But if you're expecting to curve up to six, you're probably going to want the lands instead.

How low can you go?

Yes, the games where you cast the Tyrant it is probably going to be great. But how about the times where it's in your hand at any point for the first few turns of the game while you're trying to quickly beatdown, taking the slot of something else?

The combined gains of safely getting more nonlands into your deck and playing a card which fits your game plan here would certainly make me consider not running the Tyrant in this deck. It's dependent on what else you are adding instead, but it really doesn't fit your deck's primary strategy and could be cards that point toward that direction instead.

The other end of the spectrum is also true.

I like Adanto Vanguard a lot. If you're attacking a bunch, it's excellent.

But if you're playing a slow blue-white control Draft deck, then it's mostly going to be used defensively—and it may not be the right card for your deck any longer.

Now, there are exceptions in Draft. If a card is just so crazy strong that playing it despite all that is worthwhile, then absolutely play it. I played Inferno Titan in my highly aggressive red Draft decks even though it was a six-drop when my deck's curve stopped at four because it was a combination of repeated removal and a huge creature—basically game over, and very difficult to answer.

I bring all this up because Booster Draft is a kind of boiled down, bare-bones sort of deck building, and the same principles that show up here can apply across Magic. This is where you see a lot of raw deck-building fundamentals on display.

Now let's hop back over to constructed.

Costs in Constructed

A moment ago, I said I would play Inferno Titan in my highly aggressive red Draft decks even though it didn't fit the theme. Yet, earlier in the article I said that people putting Inferno Titan in their highly aggressive red Constructed decks was an error.

Why the difference?

If Limited is a raw display of how to build decks, then Constructed is those principles in their refined form, completely pushed to their limits.

Limited decks are a lot weaker than Constructed decks. An occasional gigantic bomb can change the entire field of play and make it worthwhile, because your opponent is just lacking answers.

Not so much in Constructed formats.

Your Constructed deck needs to be optimized to best follow its game plan. If it wants to be hyper aggressive, then you're going to play four copies of all the premier one-drops, and eschew expensive-to-cast cards. You want to go as low as possible. And so what of Carnage Tyrant?

Put. Those Tyrants. Down. Tyrants are for closing with only.

To play Tyrant in an aggressive deck, you probably would also have to make sacrifices to the rest of the deck—playing more lands, for example. It's better to keep your deck focused on what it does best.

By the same token, if you're a green ramp deck that is trying to quickly deploy Carnage Tyrant, then those aforementioned premier aggressive one-drops have no business being in your deck. You want to go high, not low.

If your deck is confused about what it's trying to do, that will manifest in your draws and in your games.

Down to the Floor

This article might seem like it's about Carnage Tyrant. But really, that's just a stand-in for whatever large, high–mana cost card is making waves. We've printed them before, we're printing them now, we'll continue to print them in the future. And in all these cases, know that the cards are powerful—but harnessing that power comes with a deck-building cost.

When in doubt, when deck building for both Limited and Constructed, I always prefer to choose the cheaper-to-cast card out of two similarly powerful options. Why? It just provides so much more flexibility. You can cast it earlier in the game, later in the game it's easier to cast alongside something else, and it lessens the impact being short on mana can have in your game.

If you take nothing else away from this article, take this: when picking cards for your deck, think about if your deck naturally wants to be playing cards of that type, with that function, at that mana cost. If the answer to any of those is no, then you may want to reconsider including that card.

It's a simple check, but one not to be overlooked.

Have any questions or thoughts? Please, let me know! You can always reach me by sending a tweet, asking a question on my Tumblr, or sending an e-mail (in English, please) to BeyondBasicsMagic@gmail.com.

Have fun with Ixalan, and may all the Carnage Tyrants in your games be ones your deck was meant to cast.

Gavin
@GavinVerhey
GavInsight

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