Myth, Theme, and Wonder

Posted in Feature on March 16, 2009

By Marcus Shirley

Jerdol crouched, poised on the rocky crag overlooking the vast precipice. The great plain of Merdicor stretched out behind him, whispering to him in its subtle voice. The rain covered the stones in a sickly gloss and somewhere in the distance, he heard a crow caw twice. Across his fingers, an ant struggled feebly. Focusing, he pushed those distractions and the sound of his shivering men out of his mind. Only the rocks mattered now. The rocks, and what might lie beyond.

A flicker of movement—he barely managed to choke back a scream. He couldn't show weakness to his men. Not now.

"Ready your weapons", he whispered, just as the first stream of twisted forms started to pour out from below.

"Sir", his second croaked, "there are too many of them ...."

"We are the last defense. If we fail, they reach the tower. We must not fail." Jerdol stood, strapping his shield to his arm. "Ready yourselves, men. THE BEEBLES COME."

Magic is, at its core, a game based on stories; a veritable plethora of tales, forged in the white-hot furnace of fantasy. When you play the game, you are more than a mere human. You are a powerful, godlike being, wielding magic and mayhem across multiple worlds in a never-ending search for power and glory. Your spells are the trapped essence of countless creatures and rituals born of strange and alien places, spinning in an eternal multiverse. And nothing quite captures this essential part of the Magic universe better than theme decks.

But what are theme decks? They are decks we players make that are built around some kind of story, character, or other element of similarity. In a way, theme decks are defined by the restrictions placed upon it. For example, if you were to make a deck based around the Alara shard Grixis, you might not only restrict yourself to red, black, and blue spells. You might go as far as only using cards that are literally attached to Grixis flavor-wise. These restrictions not only make it more challenging to build a deck around; they also enhance the story of the deck, causing something I like to call "flavor synergy." That one's yours, use it as you will.

Tribal Is as Tribal Does

Let's jump right into the meat of this monster with tribal. It's the basis of so many theme decks, and why not? It gives your deck a flavor feel, an aura of back story, an air of realism. Creature types generally work synergistically, making them easy to build decks around. Lords of the various types are good, but decks don't necessarily need to be based around them; Horrors don't have a lord, but that doesn't make them any less fun to play, in a wacky sort of way. Many Horrors are based around the graveyard, with threshold or sacrifice mechanics. There's a deck concept right there, and no "+1/ +1 to all Horrors" in sight.

Horrible Horrors

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The point of this deck is... well, to quote myself earlier, wacky. It eats itself, discards itself, and generally seems self-destructive. But it can hit threshold with ease, drop fatties into play with Hell's Caretaker, and force its gluttonous nature onto your opponent with Grave Pact. Toss a Gleancrawler into the mix, and you've got yourself quite the devious cycle. And of course, there's that small, tiny chance your opening hand will be a dark ritual, three Ridged Kusites, a few Swamps and a Delraich. Hey... it could happen!

Hell's Caretaker

Let's not bash lords though. They are beloved by many, hated by few, and desired by all. Why, with a little effort, you could cram quite the mouthful of lords into one deck. How many, you ask? Well ....

Lords of the Undead

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Some version of a deck much like this has been part of my repertoire for years, and I love it. The games I've played with it have taught me something, though: red burn eats this deck. There are twelve Lords in here, and all of them start off with a measly 2 toughness. I remember playing a game a few months ago in which I cast every Lord of the Undead and Death Baron in the deck, only to see them all one by one get Shocked or Tarfired. A few crazy suggestions as to how to get around that would be Bad Moon or Gauntlet of Power. This can be dangerous against other black decks, of course, but sometimes you gotta do crazy things. In fact, I fully support madness of all kinds in everyone's life. Sanity's about as boring as it gets.

Lord of the Undead
Death Baron

That being said, the deck's got quite a few tricks up its sleeve. Lord of the Undead is a powerful reoccurring Raise Dead that can even bring back Nameless Inversion. Toss some stuff to Skirk Ridge Exhumer, bring it back to your hand with Lord of the Undead, sac the tokens to Carrion Feeder, and do it all over again! I'm also a big fan of Death Baron plus Spawning Pool, now that the murky bubble has mutated into a Skeleton. Turning a land into a 2/2 regenerating deathtouch is pretty awesome in my book.

Skirk Ridge Exhumer
Carrion Feeder

Of course, there's no final say on what has to be in a tribal deck ... unless, your deck isn't at least one-third a single creature type. The way I usually build around this theme is to find out what makes a race "tick," then boost that ticking into a full-blown time bomb. Some creature types have more than one "tick" of course; take Merfolk. In Lorwyn there was both a theme of island walk + basic land changing and a mill theme. In these cases, it's better to choose one and go with it. As funny as it would be to make a beatdown / mill deck, it probably wouldn't work all that well.

All for One, and One Kind of Card

A couple years back, a friend of mine made a deck he dubbed "The Machine," an all-artifact control deck with more tricks than a bag full of monkeys. It was quite easy to do back in the Mirrodin days, of course. The deck was so dastardly, it spawned in each of us the desire to make a deck like it, but different. So was born a series of decks that used only one type of nonland card. It is, and will always be, one of my favorite "formats," and I suggest it to anyone who enjoys putting restrictions on themselves when building a deck. What are the rules? I just told you, all nonland cards in the deck have to be one type! You never listen. Artifact, sorcery, instant, creature, enchantment .... You get the picture. One card from Conflux got me thinking about a deck in this theme, and I decided to further restrict myself by making it Standard-legal. Wanna see? You wanna see.


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The card: Sigil of the Empty Throne. I will admit, the card has an obvious and glaring weakness: it doesn't do anything. Not by itself anyway. It requires certain actions in order for its effect to happen, which is the same problem I've always had with Megrim. But the possibility of slamming multiple 4/4 flying Angels into play is too much for me to resist. The deck's tactic is a simple one; lock down your opponent until token shenanigans start to spread. Mix with a little mana acceleration and an Angelic Chorus to keep yourself alive late-game for taste. Some people may wonder at Hoofprints of the Stag in a deck with no card draw, but I felt like a turn-six 4/4 flyer as well as a two drop that didn't target a creature was worth putting a few of in the deck. Amused by this deck's possibilities, I sleeved up a copy and headed over to my pal Jason's place to give it a try.

We sat, two duelists in our prime, out to defend our honor and our bragging rights. Jason was playing a red/black agro deck, also standard legal, and I have to admit, I wasn't liking my odds. In Game 1 I went first. He got out two early Goblin Deathraiders, but both of them met with Prison Term lock down. He decided to cut his losses and sacrificed one of his screaming fellows with Bone Splinters to down the other, then slapped an Ashenmoor Gouger into play. Between that and a few Hellspark Elementals, I was down to 9 before I managed to get down a Sigil of the Empty Throne. It was followed by the glorious play of another Sigil of the Empty Throne, and I turned the game around with multiple Angels for the win.

Game 2 found Jason a little mana screwed, and he didn't hit a third land until turn five. By then I was safely behind a Story Circle, and Mobilization was spewing forth Soldier clone babies. I locked down the few creatures he managed to get out, and swarmed him. With vigilance.

He decided to switch decks after that, pulling out another aggro-blaster, this one green-white. And so started one of the longest games ever. I got out an early Story Circle, and then sat, drawing land. Land after land. For what must have been fifteen turns, four out of every five cards were land. Meanwhile, Jason was setting up a huge army, including a full play-set of Wilt-Leaf Liege. Just when we thought the game would never end, Jason drew and gave me a sly grin. With an almost contemptuous flick of the wrist, he played a Primalcrux, then cast a Mercy Killing on it. Have you ever seen a giant Elemental explode into forty-five 9/9 Elf babies? Cause it's scary.

Of course, enchantments are only one of the eight different deck types you could make; and yes, I'm including tribal and land in that. For me, the fun really is in making a deck with that massive a restriction and getting it to work. Don't get me wrong, I had the Idyllic Tutor itch with that last deck, but I didn't scratch. It only makes it worse.

Persistent Little Buggers, Ain't They?

Of course, we couldn't talk about theme decks without talking about mechanic decks. You know, those crazy decks that favor multiple cards with one mechanic instead of creature type. I for one have a tendency to make a deck out of every new mechanic that hits the market. What's interesting is that building a mechanic deck works a lot like making a tribal deck. Most mechanics don't have the necessary requirements to make them work built in; you need land to Retrace, you need discard to play Madness, you need to... not play spells for Wisdom? So, like creature types, you just gotta find the right synergy to make them work well together. And, of course, crazy combos that confuse your opponent into submission are always a must!

The Power of Persist(ence)

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At one point, during my Shadowmoor-buying phase, I had in my possession five Fracturing Gusts. The card loved me. And, sitting around one lonely night, studying the card by candlelight, the combo hit me: Fracturing Gust + Enchanted Evening + stuff that which won't die = profit. I have learned in the past however, that it doesn't hurt to have alternate win conditions. The deck could have been mono-white, perhaps with some Idyllic Tutors, Oblivion Rings, Unmake, etc. Instead I put black and green in the deck, seeing as most of the deck could be represented in those colors as well. The Devoted Druid + Quillspike combo has been seen before, and I felt like it fit well into the deck. It doesn't need to be there, however, and the mono-white version of the deck is pretty cheap to put together, while still being amusing. Hmm, I apparently won't stop talking about Idyllic Tutor, yet won't put it in a deck. Its probably a cry for help.

Fracturing Gust
Enchanted Evening

New and exciting mechanics are always in the mix, and more often than not they're the first thing people build a theme deck around. Exalted hadn't been out for a day before I'd heard several dozen different deck ideas, and before that was the delightful combo of Endless Horizons and Retrace cards. Some mechanics are harder to work with, of course .... Could you actually make a deck based on Morningtide's reinforce mechanic? You tell me!

Born to Be Themed

* Sniff * Ahhhh .... there's nothing like fresh-baked theme decks in the morning. Indeed, what fresh-faced young Magic player hasn't made at least one such deck in ecstatic exuberance, happily playing a new Elephant deck while all the other kids threw milk cartons at him? Never forget that each deck tells a story, whether it's just the mad ramblings of some crazed druid calling the lands up to destroy those who dared trespass, or the terrible indigestion Jerdol gave those Beebles. So rejoice, brothers and sisters! Go out, build, destroy, and remember, always remember, the themes.

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