O Say Can You Theme?

Posted in Feature on July 4, 2002

By Jay Moldenhauer-Salazar

I was recently talking to Mark Rosewater about ideas for theme deck formats. What if I gathered my friends together, I suggested, for our very own World Cup tournament? Each person could bring a theme deck that represented a country, and only one deck per country could enter. Imagine it: A green-white-red "Mexico" deck squaring off against the monogreen "Ireland" deck. A 30-card "Liechtenstein" deck battling the red-white power of Japan. I don’t actually remember Mark’s response, probably because I started losing myself in my own little deck world. I do that sometimes.

In honor of the United States Independence Day, here is how I might go about making a "U.S.A." deck for such an event. Whether or not you take my World Cup idea and run with it, my hope is that walking through the process of creating a theme deck will inspire some "theme parties" in your own household or local card shop.

First, some basic ground rules for my imaginary tournament.

As with all of my theme decks, such as these from Legends, every card must fit the theme, with the exception of basic lands and multicolor lands.

The deck should 1) be as competitive as possible and 2) adhere strictly to its theme. Pure theme decks that get slaughtered are only minimally fun. Likewise, very good decks that maim the competition without a theme ruin everyone’s day. Err on the side of thematic aesthetics, but competitive matches are worth aiming for in World Cup play.

Because not everyone owns cards from older sets, I'll limit my choices to Standard. My theme decks usually allow the use of any card from any set (including Portal and Unglued), but there's no need to hunt down Falling Star and Striped Bears just because they fit the "Stars & Stripes" concept. You and your friends should decide what rules to apply based on your collective card pool.

Some guiding principles for the U.S.A. deck

Because "United States" is a fairly cerebral theme (unlike Bears or Nightmares), I'll consider cards for the theme based only on card name and/or art. Flavor text is another way to dig for thematic cards, but it often makes you work too hard to "get it" unless the theme is obvious.

To parallel the colors in the United States flag, I'll include only red, white, and blue cards in the deck. I might include a particularly apropos artifact, but my goal is to have red, white, and blue splashed across the table during games to enhance the feel of the theme.

My guess is that building around a country-specific theme is ripe for gross stereotype and offensive commentary. To avoid editorials, I need some symbol or event that generally epitomizes the United States. Thankfully, Francis Scott Keys has supplied The Star Spangled Banner, an anthem sung at every sporting event in which the U.S. participates. The Star Spangled Banner will be the basis for choosing the cards.

Ready to get started? Please place your hand over your heart while I begin singing the national anthem of the United States . . . .

O say, can you see, by the dawn's early light

Because it's an anthem, it actually isn't trivial to focus on the word "say." Depending on how I might want to slant the theme, a single Blessed Orator might make its way into the deck as the person "singing" the anthem.

Thanks to the phrase "dawn's early light," Reya Dawnbringer, Divine Light, and Blinding Light work well and could find homes in the deck. Starlight also has some appeal--especially considering the stars on the U.S. flag--but it's a difficult card to use in the main deck. I like the idea of using Illuminate in the deck because it creates that "I'm waking up and seeing the war for independence" feel.

And, of course, I must use Lightning Angel. It is the only red-white-blue creature (Rakavolver doesn't count) around and has bird (read: eagle) wings.

What so proudly we hail'd at the twilight's last gleaming

Are there cards that epitomize pride? Pride of Lions is sadly out because of color restrictions, but Aegis of Honor, Honor Guard, and Honorable Scout seem to fit. There is no need to capture the idea of "twilight," but I guess I could use Shifting Sky or Skyshroud Falcon.

And Shifting Sky lets me use Starlight! Just kidding. I won't do that. Sorry, back to the deck.

Whose broad stripes and bright stars, thro' the perilous fight

Ah, the aforementioned stars and stripes, symbols of the U.S. flag. Stars throw me into artifact territory with Iron Star and Star Compass. I don't see the deck having enough red spells to make Iron Star worth it, but Star Compass might be great in a three-color deck. Yes, I have just decided that Star Compass is a must for the deck alongside Lightning Angel.

Anyone have any Standard ideas for "stripes"? I don't, either. If I want to capture the whole "fighting" or "war for independence" concept, however, I might consider Fight or Flight; Fighting Drake; Kamahl, Pit Fighter; Aven Warcraft; and Goblin War Drums.

O'er the ramparts we watch'd, were so gallantly streaming

Ramparts, strictly speaking, don't exist in Standard. Wall of Spears, Wall of Swords, Prison Barricade, and Castle might suffice. Castle carries some appeal because I have already decided to use Lightning Angel. Keep Watch also fits here.

Gallantry works very well thematically. I'm also attracted to cantrips of all kinds, generally, and cheap ones, specifically. I hereby vow to use Gallantry.

And the rockets' red glare, the bombs bursting in air

I sure would like to include Rocket Launcher, but I might have to settle for Urza's Rage because of the artwork. Sadly--and I'm only saying this once--Tahngarth's Glare is actually a "red glare" spell. But I'm still not using it.

"Bombs bursting in air" is a fun string of words to unpack. Bomb Squad has a place, as do Aether Burst, Magma Burst, Air Elemental, and Wall of Air. Magma Burst, in particular, seems to capture the theme.

Gave proof thro' the night that our flag was still there

Here is where we separate the theme purists from the Spikes. Some people might decide that the word "proof" gives them license to use Fact or Fiction. Those people are bad and should avoid theme parties.

The real word to focus on, however, is "flag." Some combination of Coalition Flag and the Flagbearers (Coalition Honor Guard and Standard Bearer) should make their way into the deck.

An Anthem, a Rampart, a Rocket, a Flag... what will you put in your All-American deck?

O say, does that star-spangled banner yet wave

In strict terms, an oriflamme is a banner, so Orcish Oriflamme could work. See what kind of crazy mental gymnastics theme decks entail? I, too, am frightened.

O'er the land of the free and the home of the brave

Shelter is both a good "home" proxy and a cheap cantrip. Liberate looks good. I just can't use Liberated Dwarf in a deck with no green creatures, even if it is a "freedom" card. Hey, but if I use Shifting Sky . . . sorry, sorry.

On the other hand, the very brave Valor works so well thematically that it'll jump right into the deck (and hopefully into the graveyard, too).

Finally, it's worth a final scan to see obvious thematic cards that don't fall under the line-by-line analysis of the song. For example, could The Star Spangled Banner be an Ancestral Tribute? At the very least, it's a Glorious Anthem. Indeed, Glory should fit into the deck somewhere, as should Wings of Hope.

No U.S.A. deck would be complete without eagles.

And since the deck is a U.S. deck rather than a strict anthem deck, there is every reason to include Cloudchaser Eagle--a card related to the country's national symbol.

I just threw a lot of different card choices at you, some of them for very weird reasons. Sifting through the morass and finding a deck that both works reasonably well and looks like a U.S. theme deck is not an easy task. Below are “lite” and "nonlite" ways I might assemble the deck, though you'll almost certainly disagree with my choices.

In fact, you probably would have approached the idea of making a U.S. deck differently. I encourage you to try your own hand at making country-specific theme decks, and possibly even to live out my dream of a World Cup tournament. If you do, don't forget to write me about the results; theme parties make me happy.

If you live in the United States, have a safe and happy holiday. If you don't, go have some barbecue chicken wings anyway.

Next week: Kill them, please!



Download Arena Decklist


Download Arena Decklist

U.S.A. Deck (all-set version)

Download Arena Decklist
Jay may be reached at houseofcards@wizards.com.

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