Deck Building with Comparative Card Choice

Posted in Feature on June 9, 2008

By Nate Heiss

First off, if you haven't read my ten steps to improve your deck building, it couldn't hurt. It's a bit off-topic for what I am going to be talking about here, but hey, it's good deck building advice, and that's what you are reading this for, right? They are simple tips that can help you get a handle on the important factors in deck building. The ten rules are here and here (there are five per article). They are not required reading to understand what I'm going to write about here, but check it out sometime to further improve your deck building skills.

The primary think that I want to discuss is Comparative Card Choice, or CCC for short. CCC is what you are using when you are looking at two cards and trying to figure out which is better for your deck. We do it all the time. Birds of Paradise or Llanowar Elves? Shock or Incinerate? Fathom Trawl or Tidings? We ask ourselves questions like this hundreds of times over when building a deck, and it is not always between just two cards. How is it that we ever can make good choices?

The average person will make these choices by falling back on a combination of their instincts and what they know about the game, which is a pretty smart approach. I hope that by the time you are done reading this article you will be able to hone those instincts and expand your knowledge of the game so that you can conduct CCC better than ever before.

Here is my definition for CCC:

Comparative Card Choice – The logic you would use to determine which card is best for your deck, by doing two things: 1) Determining how much a card helps your deck execute its strategy relative to all other cards valid for play in the format. 2) Comparing cards on power level of a card in the expected metagame.

For those of you who like your terms more loosely defined, it basically means figuring out which card is better given a choice between multiple cards.

Shock vs. Lightning Bolt in Sligh

Lightning Bolt

Let's say we are building a Sligh deck (a fast, aggressive red deck) and trying to choose between Shock and Lightning Bolt for our deck. Lets apply CCC. Remember that the main parts to it are:

  1. Relevance to strategy
  2. Power level in the expected metagame

Given that Shock and Lightning Bolt are basically the same card in terms of strategy and how they fare against the expected metagame, we can easily answer this question on a raw power level basis.

The answer is obvious: Lightning Bolt is the correct choice. Both of these cards are superb for fitting in with the plan of Sligh. Because they serve the exact same purpose, the only determining factor for CCC here is pure power level, and because Lightning Bolt deals 1 more damage than Shock for the same price, it has a higher power level, and wins the slot in your Sligh deck.

Shock vs. Incinerate in Sligh


This might be an age old question by now... Shock or Incinerate in your Sligh deck? Many people just play both. For the purposes of this question, let's assume you have already determined all the other cards in your Sligh deck.

Because there is no strict power level comparison, we are going to have to use more of the logic of CCC.

1. Relevance to strategy

In order to figure out how relevant either of these cards is to Sligh, we first must define the strategy.

Sligh deck strategy: Be very efficient with mana by playing low-cost, high-power creatures (1–3 mana cost creatures) such that the Sligh deck can overwhelm another deck before their strategy is put into motion.

Okay, now how do the two cards fit?

Shock is a one-mana instant damage spell, great for removing creatures that might block your efficient weenies, thus effectively dealing many damage to your opponent by allowing those creatures to go unblocked for longer. Also, this can be used as a finisher if your opponent stabilizes the board position.

Incinerate is a two-mana instant damage spell, great for removing creatures that might block your efficient weenies, thus effectively dealing many damage to your opponent by allowing those creatures to go unblocked for longer. Also, this can be used as a finisher if your opponent stabilizes the board position. This also deals with regenerators very effectively.

When comparing the two, we can quickly determine that the real comparison is as follows:

Shock: one mana, 2 damage
Incinerate: two mana, 3 damage, anti-regeneration

All things being equal, since the goal of the Sligh deck is to convert mana as efficiently as possible into damage, Shock seems to win on this factor.

2) Power Level in the Expected Metagame

How can we compare the power level of Shock and Incinerate? Well, honestly, it's pretty hard. In order to do that we would need to know how good one mana is weighed against 1 more damage and anti-regeneration. The answer is that is really depends what other people are playing, which is exactly why the metagame is important for answering this question.

Sometimes the metagame includes 3-toughness creatures like Watchwolf, or regenerators like River Boa. When that is the case, Incinerate starts becoming more effective for removing blockers, since Shock is less effective against creatures like that. In formats without many of those things, Shock becomes the better choice.

The lesson here is that the expected metagame is very important for determining what cards you should play in your deck, assuming all your card choices work well with your strategy.

Birds of Paradise vs. Llanowar Elves vs. Into the North vs. Search for Tomorrow

Birds of Paradise
Llanowar Elves
Into the North
Search for Tomorrow

This is quite the rumble! Which card will win?

This time, let's say we are talking about the current metagame, and you are building one of those Shadowmoor-updated Red-Green Mana ramp decks because you heard that it does pretty well against those Faerie decks.

Let's say this is the deck list you have come up with so far. You have based your build on the PT–Hollywood Top 8 deck that Marijn Lybaert played. There are 4 slots left. Now, no peeking at Marijn's list—you get to figure it out on your own.

Here is the deck list so far:

4 Chameleon Colossus
3 Cloudthresher
1 Grim Poppet
4 Kitchen Finks
4 Wall of Roots
2 Edge of Autumn
4 Firespout
4 Harmonize
2 Primal Command
4 Skred

24 lands (many of which have to be snow for Skred)

Here is the general strategy of the deck: Survive until the mid-game while accelerating your mana base and win with high quality creatures/spells.

First, let's outline what these cards do for the strategy:

Birds of Paradise is a one-cost mana accelerator and color fixer that is a 0/1 flyer.

Llanowar Elves is a one-cost mana accelerator that is a 1/1.

Mouth of Ronom
Into the North is a two-cost mana accelerator and color fixer that can allow you to add Mouth of Ronom or Scrying Sheets to the deck pretty easily.

Search for Tomorrow is a three-cost mana accelerator and color fixer with suspend 2 for one mana, meaning that you can potentially cast it on the first or second turn and have it give you an untapped land on turn three or four.

Of these cards, the Birds and the Elves are the quickest mana sources, and there is something to say for that, but the goal of this deck is to accelerate you to the midgame, and Birds and Elves will often get killed. In addition, there are very few three-drops in the deck that you really want on turn two (the only one being Kitchen Finks). This deck needs more permanent mana acceleration that won't get killed, especially by the deck's own Firespouts.

Search for Tomorrow seems very good, since it can't really be stopped, but the same goes for Into the North. Since Search for Tomorrow has suspend, let's compare it to Into the North as if you drew it on each of the first four turns of the game.

Draw Search for Tomorrow Turn One
It will allow you to play a four-drop on turn three without using up mana on the other turns you could be using to defend yourself.

Draw Into the North Turn One
You can play it next turn to accelerate you to four mana on turn four. However, it will use up precious mana on turn two that you might want to use to play Wall of Roots, Edge of Autumn, or Skred.

Turn One: Advantage to Search for Tomorrow

Draw Search for Tomorrow Turn Two
You can suspend it to accelerate to five mana on turn four, which is not very important since many of your awesome cards cost four mana. However, you will still have a mana open, which could be good for playing Skred on turn two. You will also have mana for Skred on turn three if you decide to hardcast this then, since the land comes into play untapped.

Draw Into the North Turn Two
You can play it to accelerate you to 4 on turn 3, which is just what you want.

Turn Two: Advantage to Into the North

Draw Search for Tomorrow Turn Three

You can suspend it to accelerate to six mana on turn five, which helps you play Cloudthresher early. If you suspend it, you will still have enough mana to play Wall of Roots, Edge of Autumn, or Skred. If you hardcast it, you will only have enough mana for Skred.

Draw Into the North Turn Three
You can play it to accelerate you to five mana on turn four, which isn't great, but you will at least have mana left for Skred.

Turn Three: Advantage to Search for Tomorrow

Draw Search for Tomorrow Turn Four
You probably don't want to be playing anything except for a Chameleon Colossus, Harmonize, or Firespout on this turn if you only have four mana. If you accelerated earlier OR played Firespout, you can still suspend this.

Draw Into the North Turn Four
You probably don't want to be playing anything except for a Chameleon Colossus, Harmonize, or Firespout on this turn if you only have four mana. If you accelerated earlier AND played Firespout, you can still play this to accelerate you to six next turn, which is good for Cloudthresher.

Turn Four: Slight advantage to Search for Tomorrow

It seems that Search for Tomorrow wins in the turn-by-turn play, but how does that weigh against the advantages of being able to fetch up Mouth of Ronom or Scrying Sheets? Also, if you are planning to suspend Search for Tomorrow on turn one, lands that come into play tapped become more risky to play, because turn one is Search for Tomorrows' biggest upside.

In the end, these two are close. Let's look at our three factors of CCC:

  1. Relevance to Strategy: I think Search for tomorrow wins this one because it seems better in the first four turns of play, given the other cards in the deck so far.

  2. Power Level in the Expected Metagame: Into the North may win on power level in a vacuum, because it allows access to special lands, and makes it more acceptable to play powerful "comes into play tapped" lands. I think that they are both very similar, and the question really comes down to how important those lands are in fighting off the metagame.

I would choose Search for Tomorrow for my deck, with the understanding that I would be giving up a little of something in my mana base.

Highland Weald
Marijn Lybaert chose Into the North. Now, I am certainly not saying he made a bad choice—after all, the man did just Top 8 a Pro Tour with this deck. Let's look at what lands he played:

4 Grove of the Burnwillows
2 Highland Weald
3 Mouth of Ronom
10 Snow-Covered Forest
1 Snow-Covered Mountain
4 Treetop Village

If I was playing Search for Tomorrow, I would remove the Highland Wealds for two more Snow-Covered Forests, since the Wealds come into play tapped. I would still keep the Treetop Villages because they seem powerful enough to play anyhow, and having a total of four lands that come into play tapped seems okay since Search for Tomorrow is probably the only other card I would want to play on turn one.

Since it means only having two fewer red mana sources in the deck, I would run Search for Tomorrow. However, I would probably also take out the 2 Edge of Autumn for 2 Into the North, just to be better at getting Mouth of Ronom into play at the expense of possible mana flood.

Marijn, I guess you just value your red mana more highly than I do, or feel that you would need to take out the Treetop Villages in order to make playing Search for Tomorrow worthwhile—and that is just fine. You see, at this level of nitty-gritty deck building, those sorts of slight differences in card valuation can give us different CCC outcomes. Thus it is not an exact science.

Comparative Card Choice in Action

That's the basic outline of the CCC method. Click here to see an in-depth example using the method to build a deck from start to finish.

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