Posted in Feature on January 11, 2010

By Jason Lemahieu

It was a rough night at sea in the Panorama Cafe aboard the Carnival Ecstasy, and we sat waiting for the rest of the Magic Cruise's Two-Headed Giant tournament participants to arrive. So we did what we always did while waiting for anything: we played Magic. As a judge who's never played a real Constructed match of Magic in my life, I busted out the one deck I brought with me to sea: a 250-card or so, mostly Singleton, Standard-legal deck with no cards that searched the library. We'd typically just split it in half to play. As I scrounged through the rest of my backpack, I found no sign of any pen, paper, dice, or anything else to keep track of life. Being in a cafeteria aboard a boat, there wasn't really anything of the sort around. As someone who insists on having an easy and reliable way to track life, this irked me to the point where I would honestly be unhappy playing. The only thing we had an abundance of ... was Magic cards. And that's when it hit me.

What if we just use our libraries as our life totals? We decided that if we'd lose life, we'll just mill that many cards from our libraries instead. We shuffled up and got to it, and it was a blast from the get-go! It didn't take long at all before we started noticing some of the awesome interactions in the new format. Even cards as simple as Underground River made us laugh at first. When the "damage" put a Viscera Dragger in my graveyard, we laughed even more. People started gathering around to see what all the commotion was about. After we explained what we were doing, someone made a remark about the similarities to Crumbling Sanctuary, and we immediately found a name for what we were doing. As more players arrived in the Panorama, the fun grew, and you can only imagine the eruption that took place when I slammed a Charnelhoard Wurm onto the table a few turns later!

Underground River
Viscera Dragger

However, it was that same Charnelhoard Wurm which made me start to realize potential problems with our new style of play. As soon as I connected with it, I picked up my massive graveyard and remembered why I built my large casual decks without any cards that search the library. Here I was, searching through my graveyard to find the best possible card for the moment (probably one to protect my Wurm!). It was a chore. It was boring. It made me, my opponent, and the spectators all start to lose interest quickly.

Charnelhoard Wurm

I immediately started making mental notes of which types of cards were fun and which weren't. Searching the library was out of the question. Choosing or targeting cards from a graveyard was, too, because by the time you're halfway through the game, your graveyard was just as large as your library. While cards like Reanimate would most certainly make powerful additions, they would simply take too long to make reasonable decisions and would clearly border on overpowered. Additionally, if every card in the huge graveyards remained relevant, there would simply be too much information to track and use, again slowing down the pace of play. I decided that as long as players kept cards that remained relevant in the graveyard in a separate pile, it would be easy for players to keep that small amount of extra information in mind while playing. I also realized that there wasn't an elegant solution for life gain. We toyed with the notion of returning cards from your graveyard to your library, or even from outside the game, to simulate life gain, but ended up just choosing to ban life gain from the pile. We played this style of Magic a few more times on the cruise, always discussing how we could make this into something amazing, and I remember spending the majority of our 14-hour drive back to Madison brainstorming the perfect storm of cards.

Go Big or Go Home

Now, I'm no stranger to building large decks. Since I saw my first game of Five-Color, I've been enthralled with the concept of playing with large piles of cards. I helped craft the Five-Color "Shadow" format (named after Shadow of Doubt) where we built 250-card, five-color decks but prohibited ourselves from searching our libraries because, again, it just took too long and interrupted the fun. I founded the Go Big or Go Home clan on Magic Online, and even petitioned Magic Online to raise the deck size limit, because 1500 cards was simply not large enough for my liking. I even have a pair of identical 1500-card decks on Magic Online to battle on fair ground against friends.

From my experiences with crafting large decks, there are a few key things to remember with card selection. Having a mana curve is important, but with the high amount of variance involved when playing with so many cards, it simply isn't enough. A deck of this nature needs to include a lot of cards that could fit into many places in a mana curve. This is a concept I refer to as scalability. For example, a turn-two Dimir Guildmage is a beatstick. A turn-six Dimir Guildmage replaces itself. And a Dimir Guildmage any time after turn ten can provide quite a bit of reach to end the game. (Be sure to realize the power of targeted card draw, as every game ends with decking.)

Dimir Guildmage

Flexibility is a concept that's closely tied to scalability; it involves how many options any given card has. Blood Tyrant, for example, is hardly flexible. Once you reach seven mana, you can finally play him and start smashing face. Compare that to something like Blast from the Past, the poster child of Flexibility. Sure, Blood Tyrant can be a fun card—but only in that specific late-game situation, whereas Blast from the Past is a card you'd be thrilled to draw at any point in any game.

Blast from the Past

Luckily, Magic's designers from the past many years had a lot of the same criteria when crafting Limited environments; there are countless mechanics and cards that played into the concepts of scalability and flexibility. Morph and cycling stand out as the frontrunners in this department. When a card has morph or cycling, you never mind having it, early or late. The same is true of many spells with a handful of other mechanics including replicate, suspend, evoke, split cards, and kicker. Cards with these mechanics are generally good cards at any point in the game, and provide the player with options. Options are fun. We like options.

Mana Overboard

A consistent mana base is obviously important for any deck, but I think it's even more important for a deck of this size with no tutor effects to be able to fix its mana naturally. I really wanted to minimize the mana screw potential to a point where it almost never happened. I certainly recognize that mana issues are a huge part of the game, but when players aren't given the chance to make these decisions in while building their decks, mana issues are less fun and less avoidable. I decided the best way to do this was to make the deck very weighted toward one side of the color wheel.

I had originally intended for the deck to be Singleton, but in order to provide a consistent mana base, I relaxed the Singleton requirement when it came to the mana base. (Besides, I just happen to have a pretty vast collection that included things like playsets of the original dual lands, so why not take advantage of that?) So while the Sanctuary contains one each of Tidings, Fact or Fiction, and Fathom Trawl, it does have eight each of Dimir Aqueduct and Lonely Sandbar. (By the way, Ravnica "bounce lands" combined with Onslaught cycling lands create an incredibly consistent mana base while being easy on the wallet.)

Dimir Aqueduct
Lonely Sandbar

I knew the best way to get consistent draws with plenty of decisions every turn was to go through a lot of cards—by means of drawing and looting, which are most prevalent in blue and black. I actually went so far as eliminating green completely. (There are a few ways to generate green mana, and they come in handy for things like Bringer of the Blue Dawn, Resounding Thunder, and occasionally Engineered Explosives).

And Now for Something Completely Different

What I've discussed so far have been concepts I keep in mind when building any large deck, but I was hoping to turn the Sanctuary into more than just another big deck. I want every game played with the Sanctuary to feel epic on some level, so I laid out my key goals for the deck:

  1. Games should include an ebb and flow.
  2. People should be excited about old cards in new ways, given the unique nature of the format
  3. Games should be unique.

1. Ebb and Flow

It takes more than large "life totals" and powerful, flashy cards to make a Magic game epic. The best games of Magic involve a continuous ebb and flow. I'd ideally like control of the game to constantly be in a state of flux. Luckily, the basic nature of the Sanctuary lends itself well to this, and I've intentionally filled it with cards that take full advantage of that. For instance, if you're getting beat down early on, you're more likely to, in one way or another, find an answer to said beatdown. Maybe you'll turn over a Wonder to give you a blocker you didn't have before. Maybe you'll get your graveyard filled fast enough to power out that Tombstalker. When an early Dimir Cutpurse starts wreaking havoc, it might cut a Crippling Fatigue right into the opposing graveyard.

Crippling Fatigue

Magic's even been so kind as to bless us with a few "catch up" cards to help balance out those uneven games. Slithermuse and Pulse of the Grid are both cards that help a player with slimmer resources even the playing field quickly. (I could include Balance in this pile, but let's be honest ....) Sometimes, though, catching up isn't enough, and I like to see a full 180 in control of the game. That's why whenever your opponent finds a large threat, you just need to draw any of Control Magic, Treachery, Confiscate, Rite of Replication, Dream Leash, Chromeshell Crab, Dominate, Mind Control, Take Possession, Sower of Temptation, or Duplicant, and totally reverse the momentum of the game.

Rite of Replication

2. Old Dogs and New Tricks

Playing with the Sanctuary was playing Magic, but it was a new way to play Magic, and I wanted to make sure playing a game with the Sanctuary felt different enough from just playing with a normal stack of cards; I needed to, through card selection, make sure playing this new way was worth the effort.

For starters, this meant that cards with flashback, unearth, or other graveyard-relevant abilities should be given extra consideration. While Deep Analysis is always one of my favorite cards, it becomes at least three times as awesome in this format. For starters, it's card draw—which is very important in a format such as this. Next, it has flashback, which makes it a great card to have milled via damage. (Just remember to mill three more cards before you draw two when you flash it back!) Lastly, it's targeted card draw, which means that it can give you that last bit of extra reach in the late game.

In the unearth department, I don't think I could dream up a card that's better designed or more appropriate for the Sanctuary than Extractor Demon. It's kind of an odd fit in a normal Magic deck—an efficient flying beater that has a milling ability tacked on. (I guess the idea here is to mill yourself to find more guys with unearth?) However, in the Sanctuary, Extractor Demon is a true powerhouse. If you're lucky enough to draw it, it's a huge, easy-to-play flying dude with a very relevant ability. (Remember, milling and damage are equivalent.)

Extractor Demon

While tournament staples like Deep Analysis are fairly obvious inclusions, there are plenty of other cards that help make the most of the format that aren't staples in other formats.

3. Games Should be Unique

Now despite all the effort and planning I put into the pile upfront, I will certainly admit that the original Sactuary was far from perfect, and guaranteeing unique games was the goal that was the toughest to achieve at first. There was actually an overabundance of card draw and a lack of threats. With the abundance of card draw, we found ourselves with full grips all the time, filtering through the same subpar cards until we found one of the same couple of game winners.

With the lack of moderately costed threats, quite a few of the games would end up devolving into a player losing to his or her own Phyrexian Arena or Graveborn Muse. I can certainly recall a few games where Arcanis the Omnipotent was on the attack, rather than hacking away on his controller's library. Don't get me wrong—I love anytime Arcanis is on the offensive, but it's a sure sign of a problem when it becomes the norm. This ended up making for games that, while they usually had a pretty interesting beginning and middle, left players feeling a bit unsatisfied with the ending. Additionally, at around 250 cards, the original Sanctuary just wasn't large enough! It was only small enough that we'd play with the entire thing each time. The problem with that is that then, every game, you know that someone will eventually get Kederekt Leviathan in their graveyard. You knew that there was a 50% chance that your opponent's library contained Chainer's Edict every time you swung with your Iridescent Angel. I wanted to increase the randomness while simultaneously decreasing this type of metagaming.

Primoc Escapee
Yoked Plowbeast

Luckily, the solution was simple: Increase the deck's variance by adding more creatures. But not just any creatures—they still need to meet the criteria of being scalable (good early and good late), flexible (provide options), and relatively easy to cast. I decided to let a little loose on the idea that all the individual cards needed to be flashy and cool. After all, it was a massive deck I was building—not some individual cards. That's when cards like Primoc Escapee, Ridge Rannet, and Yoked Plowbeast got past the bouncer. The additions of cards such as these have really helped shape and define the Sanctuary. After all, these cards are scalable and flexible, never require colored mana, and are used in each of their options about half the time. They help illustrate that cards that appear simple on the surface can be combined to create something unique and exciting.

Game On

While designing and building a deck of this magnitude and with this much thought behind it is certainly fun in and of itself, the real fun comes from—wait for it—playing with it!

We certainly play the Sanctuary on kitchen tables (and bars and swimming pool decks and hotel room ironing boards), but it's a riot to bust it out during downtime at any kind of tournament. In addition to local FNMs, the Sanctuary has seen its fair share of $5Ks, Grand Prix, and Pro Tours. After a handful of people ask "EDH?" and we explain what we're playing with and how we're playing, a small crowd tends to gather, which can occasionally turn into a large crowd. It is always a good time either way.

Over time, The Sanctuary has grown, matured, and mutated based on two main factors: substantial playtesting (as described above), and the input of the Magic communities and everyone who's played with it. I'm not just talking about contributing ideas—many people have graciously donated foil and/or foreign cards to help keep things as exciting as possible. I've had plenty of friends trade me foils for regular cards, and even just give me cards. When we are drafting rares at the end of an FNM, my friends will usually ask what I still need from the current block for the Sanctuary. When I've been at the Pro Tour, people from other countries have offered up cards from their native language. I've even had dealers who, after asking why I'm spending so much time in their bulk foil boxes, agree that the pile sounds really cool and tell me I should just take a few new cards for it. People from many different Magic communities and even many different countries have contributed to making the Sanctuary what it is today.

Are the games unique? They sure are! You might or might not remember 2009 U.S. Nationals as the event where Faeries faced a field of hate, but I'll remember it as the time when, after hitting my opponent with Mindslaver, I made him Repeal his own Greater Gargadon, suspend it, sac all of his permanents, and then let his poor Gargadon get Slaughter Pacted. While some might focus on winning two of the new fetch lands at the first Zendikar FNM, I care much more about how many times I bounced and re-cast my Voidmage Husher to keep my opponent's Kederekt Leviathan at bay (six times, by the way). And I'll never forget my opponent's brain piercing cry throughout the hall of the GP–Minneapolis last-chance trials when my Night's Whisper put both Momentary Blink and Grixis Slavedriver into my graveyard.

Night's Whisper
Momentary Blink

Now, hopefully this goes without saying, but this format is obviously not meant to be played where each player brings their own deck. (I can't even begin to imagine how degenerate that format would be, but Dredge certainly comes to mind.) However, if you're like me and have a large collection that goes mostly unused, this is a great way to bring a self-contained box of fun to any gathering.

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