Picking the Pieces

Posted in Feature on November 28, 2002

By Jay Moldenhauer-Salazar

The comparisons between Magic and chess are inescapable, and parallels between the two games could fill an entire article. I’m not going to make those parallels today, but hopefully you see them.

In fact, my explanation of Magic to non-Magic players is usually, “Imagine chess with thousands of different possible pieces where each piece, when played, changes the rules of the game. Then throw in the luck and bluffing of poker. That’s Magic.”

It comes as no surprise to me, then, that many readers have sent me unsolicited “chess” theme decks.

I haven’t written about theme decks in awhile, so for those of you who are wondering what exactly I’m talking about, here is a definition.

To me, a theme deck:

  • contains only cards (other than basic or mana-fixing lands) that fit the theme of the deck
  • is playable (that is, it has a reasonable outside shot of winning a Magic game), despite its emphasis on aesthetics

If you are still confused, go ahead and read my theme articles on Legends, bears, and countries. I’ve written about some alternate theme deck ideas, like recreating flavor text and storylines as well as artist theme decks, but the first three articles really demonstrate theme decks in their purest form. Anyway, as you can probably tell, I like theme decks.

But why “chess” as a theme? Well, as I said the link between chess and Magic is fairly strong. The real reason I think chess theme decks are popular, though, is because they are really fun to make. Allow me to explain...


Every chess theme deck I have ever seen has been black/white with an equal number of cards dedicated to each color. If you are wondering why, then it may do you some good to go stare at your friend’s chess set for awhile.

Another idea, of course, is to build two decks--one white, one black. If the decks are balanced in power, this has some immediate appeal thematically since you can (and should) play the two decks against one another. For today, though, I am going to assume you will build a single black/white theme deck.

In addition to common colors, the decks I’ve seen tend to be filled to the gills with creatures representing the various chess pieces. Usually, the goal is to find cards to represent 1 king, 1 queen, 2 rooks, 2 bishops, 2 knights, and 8 pawns for each color. Here is where the fun of building a chess theme deck begins.

Chess sets can vary greatly in their interpretation of the individual pieces. There are Civil War, Tolkein, Star Trek, and Disney chess sets to name a very few. Perhaps this is why selecting Magic cards to represent the various chess pieces is both so appealing and ripe for creativity.

Onslaught provides an opportunity for making new and interesting chess theme decks with its emphasis on creature types. Given a set full of Legends and Lords, you can even build a chess theme deck using nothing but Onslaught cards. In fact, I think I’ll do exactly that.

Below are examples of how I would build an Onslaught-only chess theme deck along with a more general chess theme deck. I will be making two decks simultaneously, so stay alert.


The king in chess is the most important piece. For a theme deck, you can translate the importance of the king in two ways:

First, you can decide that the king is really central to how the deck should play. For example, in Onslaught you might choose Ancestor's Prophet, Aven Brigadier, or Catapult Master as your white king because they rely on the other “pieces” (i.e. cards) and make them better. In these cases, the rest of your supporting white cards are either Clerics, Birds, or Soldiers.

For an Onslaught-only deck, I like this tactic of using Lords to represent the kings. For a white king I would choose Aven Brigadier because it gives me some flexibility with using both Birds and Soldiers. I would also use Gravespawn Sovereign for the black king because he is the only black Lord and because of the “Sovereign” in his name.

Second, you can decide to make the king relatively weak and in need of protecting. This mimics chess, since it means the king won’t be an offensive powerhouse and will rely on the other cards to win.

For a general chess theme deck, I would pick King Suleiman as the quintessential white king. In black, I would strive to find something equally gimpy and of an equivalent mana cost. Dauthi Warlord seems to work here as long as I use no other creatures with shadow.

The queen is the most dangerous piece in chess. For this reason, I like to make the queen cards the ones that are most likely to take over and win the game for me. I also like them to have females in their art. In Onslaught, Exalted Angel is about the only appropriate white queen, while Visara the Dreadful stands out as the black queen. If Legions, Magic’s next set, contains cards for Akroma and Phage, they will likely fit right into a theme deck as queens.

Queens for a general chess theme deck are tougher to pick. White has Jhovall Queen, while black has a choice between Coffin Queen and Sorceress Queen. What bothers me, though, is that neither black card is a mirror image of the white card in casting cost or effect. Still, in the absence of a matched pair it will have to do, and both of the below queens can definitely win a game single-handedly.

What makes the rook difficult in a theme deck is that the piece is nothing more than a castle. I usually interpret the rook in Magic as a Wall, although this in no way mimics the chess rook’s mobility. Still, until I think of a better system, Crude Rampart makes a fine white rook, while Severed Legion is a suitable black Zombie rook (my justification being that there are towers in the art).

In a general theme deck, I can strive to make the two pieces as equivalent as possible. There are no better matched Walls in my mind than these two:

Magic's Clerics make great bishops. In Onslaught, Aven Soulgazer makes an interesting white bishop since it is both a Bird and a Cleric, and thus benefits from the white king. Meanwhile, Rotlung Reanimator is a Zombie and has the nice side effect of making the Soulgazer better. Neat.

Then again, Disciple of Grace and Disciple of Malice make excellent bishops as well. I’ll try them in my general theme deck as the matched pair.

Knights are often the early workhorses of a chess game, and so they should be for your chess theme deck. Ideally, they are 2- or 3-casting cost and can kill pawns. Catapult Squad fits in white as the Soldier knight, while Undead Gladiator has a very black knightly feel.

The very existence of White Knight and Black Knight probably had you thinking about a chess theme deck in the first place. No reason not to use them here.

There is fodder in chess thanks to the pawn, and so you might as well use the fodder in Magic. Pawns can be vanilla, dinky creatures you expect to come out early and die easily. Some decks might bend the normal constructed guideline to use 8 of the same card for its white and black pawns, but I am just as happy using 4 of two different cards. In Onslaught, the white pawns seem clearly to be Gustcloak Runner and Glory Seeker if I am using a Soldier theme. In black, Festering Goblin is a great black pawn. After that, I suppose Headhunter works as well as any, though I wish there was a more vanilla Zombie to add here.

So far, my general chess theme deck has used matched pairs with the exception of the queens. No use to buck the trend now. Dega Disciple and Necra Disciple can make up half of the pawns while Eager Cadet and Cabal Trainee have nice mirrored qualities to them.

If you follow this formula, you have 32 creatures in your theme deck. Assuming an average land count of 24, that leaves four extra slots for cards. You could use cards like Head Games and Harsh Mercy to round out the theme in clever ways, or you may want to find another aspect of chess to enhance the deck. In the decks below, I have used Slate of Ancestry and Bargaining Table as my thematic chessboards. I’ve also used Grand Coliseum, which adds a little thematic spice to the competitive atmosphere of chess.

Chess Onslaught

Download Arena Decklist


Download Arena Decklist

As I suggested earlier, you may decide to make entirely different choices in a chess theme deck, which is one of the beauties of theme deck building. Do you want to make a red/blue chess theme deck with Lord of Atlantis and Goblin King as your kings? Have at it! Want to change the rules so that if a king dies you lose the game? No problem! Want to make a chess theme deck for every block of cards and see which wins? Sounds like a great evening! “Chess” is nice in that it allows for lots of fun ways to interpret the theme while remaining relatively structured.

One suggestion, though: Against other theme decks, your chess theme probably won’t be immediately obvious. I suggest playing your land in a chessboard pattern of Swamps and Plains on the table. That may help to get the point across.

Have fun with you theme deck building, and as always if you throw a “theme party” let me know how it goes and share some of the decks. I’m always happy to see how other folks interpret the same idea.

Oh, and I didn't forget what day it was today! Happy Thanksgiving to all my American readers (and Happy Thursday to everyone else)! And we all know what I think of holidays… they're the perfect excuse for another theme deck! Below is a Thanksgiving Chess deck that somehow miraculously combines today's two themes. Lots of tasty birds!


Chess is for the Birds

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

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