Two Basic Rules: This One’s for Deck Designers

Posted in Feature on February 9, 2006

By Mike Flores

Michael Flores is the author of Deckade and The Official Miser's Guide; the designer of numerous State, Regional, Grand Prix, National, and Pro Tour–winning decks; and the onetime editor-in-chief of The Magic Dojo. He'd claim allegiance to Dimir (if such a Guild existed)… but instead will just shrug "Simic."

Designing a deck is easy; everyone has got ideas. Designing a deck that can actually compete against the first tier of a Constructed metagame is one of the hardest things a player, a thinker, can attempt in the game of Magic: The Gathering. If you are interested in executing on the latter, this article will give you two small tips that can make big differences in how your ideas perform.

Some players specialize in pushing forward proactive agendas and finding the most synergistic combinations of cards. I like to look at the inefficiencies in the existing decks and use my knowledge of old formats to figure out how I can prey on the designs that other competitors think are the best choices. Now when you play the most powerful, oftentimes the most obvious strategies, you are rarely bound by the rules that I am going to outline below. Your mana is often borrowed, or better yet, one color. You play the most powerful card drawing spells, or the most aggressive, automatic, creatures and enhancement spells. It's much harder to go your own way, where even when your path is illuminated by the light cast by old masters, the road is often rocky.

Rushwood Dryad
Last year, I presented a possible Regionals deck to my friend Eric “edt” Taylor. The deck was a modification on one of Jamie Wakefield's designs, its major upside being the presentation of a Rushwood Dryad attacking on turn 3 wearing Blanchwood Armor (you will remember that last year's Regionals was wall-to-wall Tooth and Nail).

“I can see how you beat Tooth…” Eric said.

“Uh huh.”

“… And you beat Red Decks too?”

“Yeah,” I replied. They usually can't get past a Blanchwood Armor, and you have 5/5s to soak up all their burn and race.”

“That still doesn't make the deck good.”

”What? What do you mean the deck isn't good?”

“A long time ago, Lauer sat me down when I showed him a pile like this one and taught me a lesson: Good decks play good cards. Where is your Mindslaver? Where is your Pulse of the Forge or Arc-Slogger? The strongest card in your deck is Eternal Witness… and as far as I can tell, it only gets back Sakura-Tribe Elder.”

In case you don't know, Erik Lauer was arguably the greatest and most important deck designer in the history of Magic. Many of the major archetypes, most notably Big Blue, can ultimately be traced back to him and the first generation of Team CMU. Lauer was a profound influence not only on Magic at large, but on his direct associates, like edt and myself, personally.

Eric (Taylor) was right, and neither of us played the Blanchwood Armor deck last year. While it is all well and good to go “rogue,” to approach the metagame from off the radar with the intention of preying on established decks, you can never get past the simple fact that some cards are just better than others. No amount of perceived synergy will consistently beat the best decks across the board unless the rogue can match raw card power as well.

Last week's article, Gruul in Translation, was one of the most polarizing I've ever written for this site. It was controversial in the sense that about half of the audience thought Gruul in Translation was the best thing I had ever written… and the other half hated my proposed deck lists. One of the deck lists people didn't like was the so-called Forsythe update (Angry Hermit now with 100% fewer Hermits). The objection, and it can be considered a reasonable one given the fact that the article was posted during Gruul Week, was that the deck had precious few dedicated Gruul cards. There were only twelve total additions from Guildpact, eight of which were Izzet stamped.

Angry Hermit Update (now with 100% fewer Hermits)

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My thought when putting that deck in the Gruul update article was that there were already several decks highlighting guild-specific card choices; the Forsythe update was there to make a point, a literal translation of Mana and Bombs. I didn't limit myself to Gruul because even in the context of Red and Green cards, I wanted to highlight pure power. Two-for-ones. Unbridled mana acceleration. Monolithic Legendary Creatures no one is willing to attack.

When you are exploring new ideas of your own, don't forget that your card selections should be made with an open mind. Today, color constriction is essentially a non-issue – especially for Green – so when you are exploring new branches of design theory, you don't have to limit yourself, certainly not in terms of card power.

Good decks play good cards. The best decks play the best cards.

Early in my Magic career, my model as a player was local standout Worth Wollpert. Worth hung out at the same store that I did, but was a step and a half ahead of me as a player. Worth taught me a lot in the mid-nineties, but the most important thing he showed me was that first Blue Envelope he earned in the summer of 1996, with a deck of his own design.

Storm Seeker
During the modified (“Homedicapped”) Standard Qualifier season for Pro Tour Columbus, almost everyone played either Land Tax or Necropotence. It was thought that you could defeat Hymn to Tourach only if you had a powerful card drawing engine to offset that most fearsome of two-mana disruption spells. Worth chose a deck that looked kind of like the stock Erhnam 'geddon, and kind of like Erhnam and Burn 'em (a deck, incidentally, the Gruul could appreciate), but married to Howling Mine (his oblique answer to Hymn), Stormbind, and Storm Seeker.

“If Necrodecks want to draw seven, let them; they can take seven too.”

Worth's deck was a perfect choice for the metagame. His Storm Seekers punished the top tier decks and his overall card quality beat all the stragglers with sub-optimal archetype choices. What struck me in that first win was that Worth's hybrid three-color deck posed questions that neither G/W Erhnam 'geddon nor G/R Erhnam and Burn 'em had to answer… Using a combination of Birds of Paradise, Ice Age pain duals, and Chronicles addition City of Brass, Worth had to tune his deck to three colors.

“I think that getting the mana right is the hardest part of building a new deck.”

“Getting the mana right” is a big barrier for deck ideas, possibly the most difficult single skill to master in all Constructed deck tuning. Everyone wants to build a Sligh curve that starts on Savannah Lions, goes to Nantuko Shade at two, then hits Eternal Witness or Call of the Herd as its three-drop while still playing cards like Fireblast. The problem is that Magic doesn't let us construct our decks that way, even in Type I (or, more specifically, we can, we just lose to color screw more often than our pragmatic opponents).

Sometimes, even when there actually is card support, there is no reason to branch out in colors. For Regionals 1999, I was working on all manner of clever decks. One was a multicolor Black deck with Dauthi Slayer and Incinerate, Cursed Scroll main and utility removal cards in the sideboard. My mana base was a little depressing, but not so depressing that I didn't actually try the deck out. I showed my old pal Lauer who said, “Exactly why would you play that thing rather than… Sligh?” Mad Genius of Magic that he was, Lauer once again had a point. My deck, for its perceived flexibility and moderately enhanced card power didn't actually offer anything that a regular old monochromatic Red Deck didn't do more consistently; I ended up playing a Hatred deck designed by Brian Schneider with Worth and made Top 4.

Sometimes, even when there actually is card support, there is no reason to branch out in colors.

Just two or three years back, Zvi Mowshowitz taught me an important variation to Worth's rule. Not only is getting the mana right a concern when playing a new deck borne on the wings of a different idea, making sure you don't lose to color screw is the minimum hand you can give yourself; the opponent is already hard at work trying to find every possible way he can get an advantage against you… there is no reason you should help him out.

This brings us to what was perhaps the even more controversial deck from last week's polarizing article. It seems that many of you dislike my update to Scott Johns's original Zoo deck from the 1996 Type I Championship. To you, a Mono-Red Gruul deck is just not “The Zoo” and shouldn't have been spoken of in the same breath as Scott's build.

Zoo Update (believe it or not)

Download Arena Decklist

Obviously the newfound legality of iconic creatures like Savannah Lions and Kird Ape jumped to mind when trying to update Scott's deck for Standard… but the mana just isn't there. It's all well and good to try to play a “real” version of The Zoo in Standard… until you are looking at a hand of cards you can't play. Ravnica duals are some of the best since Savannah and Taiga back in Alpha, but they tell only half the story. Extended is a different story; without Onslaught duals backing them up, Stomping Ground and Temple Garden alone are not enough to support a deck that wants any of three different colors – and specifically wants Forests – on turn 1. It's just not realistic, especially when Kird Ape won't let you play Tendo Ice Bridge. Even when you get the right colors, you will end up pummeling yourself two damage at a time with every land drop (more on that later).

What my Pat Sullivan-flavored update did was to try to preserve the strategy of The Zoo if not the specific cards that made it up. The quick beatdown should be apparent, even if it does not include Savannah Lions, Kird Ape, or Gorilla Shaman; the burn suite should be pretty obvious, even if it is held to a single color (though Char makes an awfully good Psionic Blast, you have to admit). One update to the deck that you may not have noticed is Zo-Zu the Punisher in the Mystical Tutor / Ancestral Recall spot.


In The Zoo, the goal of the card advantage engines was not to draw more cards in a vacuum; Scott wanted to burn his opponents out and utilized the combination of cheap threats and “draw seven” spells to good effect. For a modern burn deck, the goal remains the same: burn the opponent out… even if there is no Timetwister available.

According to the Philosophy of Fire, the baseline value of one card for a burn deck is a Shock – two damage. What does Zo-Zu the Punisher give an aggressive burn deck like the one I posted but the ultimate utility of that single card, the annoying Shock, turn after turn? Especially in a format ruled by Wood Elves and Sakura-Tribe Elders, this Legendary Goblin Warrior is about as close to a Wheel of Fortune… he even costs about the same!

Most of you who objected to a Mono-Red Zoo last week are probably still shaking your heads. That said, hopefully I've shown some of the rest of you how important it is to preserve and focus on core strategy rather than slavishly devoting yourself to the same cards as in older versions of a deck, even when the format dictates otherwise. The goal of being an expansive deck designer is to see things that other people don't, to find and exploit inefficiencies, not blandly copy old decks just because certain cards become available. Who knows? Perhaps one of you will prove me wrong and a more traditional looking Zoo will be the Next Big Thing in Standard… But for my part, my experience says that the principles of The Zoo can bring success without branching into two or three additional colors.

Just remember: Getting the mana right is the hardest part of building a new deck. Sometimes there just isn't any reason to branch out your colors: making sure you don't lose to color screw is the minimum hand you can give yourself.

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