How to Build Top-Down in Standard

Posted in How to Build on April 26, 2016

By Cassie LaBelle

Cassie LaBelle is a freelance writer. When she's not at her keyboard dreaming up stories, you can find her playing with his cats, listening to records, or building yet another Magic deck.

If you've ever cracked a pack of Shadows over Innistrad, you don't need me to tell you that the set is bursting with bloody, squishy, crazy, wolf-y flavor. And now that Khans of Tarkir and Fate Reforged have rotated out of Standard, we're left with a competitive format that contains just five sets including Shadows. Sounds like the perfect time to build a flavorful, top-down deck in Standard!

But where to start? Top-down deck building can seem overwhelming at first, especially when your canvas is a set as rich as Shadows over Innistrad. This week, I'm going to break down my creative process and help you craft a fun and flavorful Standard deck. Want to crush your friends or go for the win at FNM in style? You've come to the right place.

Get Inspired

Every great deck starts with a jolt of inspiration. While some deck builders can pluck their ideas out of the æther like some sort of artistic geist, I like to start by taking a long look at the cards themselves. Take your time with this, too—it's easy to miss fantastic little details when you aren't paying close attention. Did you catch Nahiri in the background of Warped Landscape? Did you notice that the Mad Prophet has a second mouth growing out of his ear?

If I'm feeling ambitious, I'll pick up a Fat Pack and use all of its contents as my deck-building muse. The biggest advantage of buying your packs this way is access to the latest Player's Guide, which is a must-own for story obsessives like me. The Shadows guide, for example, goes into detail about the plane's encroaching madness, Nahiri's return, Jace and Sorin's struggle with Avacyn, and the ethos of Innistrad's major races and factions. Any one of these concepts could inspire a flavorful Standard deck.

Another great way to find inspiration is by playing in a Booster Draft or Sealed Deck tournament. Sometimes it takes actual gameplay to reveal the most flavorful interactions in a set. It was a casual draft with friends that gave me the idea for my Adorable Pets of Magic deck, led by slobbery all-star Akroan Mastiff (who is a very good boy, yes he is, yes he is!).

Find Your Focus

Just as there are many different kinds of top-down cards, there are many different kinds of top-down decks. Once you're inspired by something on a card, you have to figure out what aspect of flavor you want your deck to focus on. I tend to group my top-down deck designs into the following six categories:

Story-Focused: Do you want to recreate a pivotal moment in the Magic storyline on the battlefield? A story-focused Shadows over Innistrad deck might showcase Avacyn's descent into madness and Sorin's decision to unmake his creation, for example.

Character-Focused: Do you want to play as one of the main characters in the block, filling your deck with the sorts of spells they might use? A character-focused Shadows deck could feature Jace (played by you) scouring the various provinces of Innistrad in search of clues (and Clues).

Location- or Faction-Focused: Do you want to build a deck that evokes the feeling and flavor of a particular place or faction? A deck designed to highlight Innistrad's passionate and vicious howlpacks could fall into this category, as could a deck that wanted to explore Nahiri's creepy twisting of Markov Manor.

Mechanic-Focused: Do you want to explore the flavor behind one of the set's new or returning mechanics? If you want to see how much fun it can get to go crazy with the best of Shadows over Innistrad's madness cards, your deck would fit into this category.

Interaction-Focused: Do you have a single flavorful card or interaction you want to build your deck around? My favorite card in the set is Triskaidekaphobia, and I'd love to pair it with Startled Awake since they're both alternate win conditions that involve scaring your opponent to death.

Concept-Focused: Do you have an abstract idea or a feeling you want to use as the basis for your deck? Many of my best top-down decks are concept-focused in addition to fitting into one of the other five categories. For example, my Triskaidekaphobia/Startled Awake deck is interested in the concept of killing via dreams and nightmares. My madness deck wants to explore the idea of what it might be like to gain eldritch knowledge while losing your mind.

As you get deeper into the deck-building process, you can use this sort of categorization to remind yourself where you want your focus to lie. For example, a character-focused deck where you are playing as Jace is going to want to take advantage of Jace-related cards from Origins and Battle for Zendikar block. A faction-focused deck designed to showcase Innistrad's Werewolves probably shouldn't use many cards from those sets. (Don't forget about Call of the Full Moon in Origins, though!)

Craft Your Deck

Did you know that there are high-quality images of every card in Shadows over Innistrad here on the Wizards of the Coast website? While I prefer looking at physical cards to gather inspiration, I tend to do my deck building while poring over a visual gallery of the entire set. This is where I pull out my little black notebook and start making a list of all the cards I'd like to include in my deck.

I like to group my list into three distinct columns:

The Most Important Cards: Whatever cards inspired your deck in the first place should be here. It's hard to make that story-focused Avacyn deck without Archangel Avacyn and Descend upon the Sinful. That Startled Awake brew is going to need its namesake card in order to work.

Include If Possible: Cards in this column are probably going to make the final list, but they aren't essential in order to play the deck. Your top-down madness deck is going to be better with an Asylum Visitor or two, but it's okay to get started building even if you haven't been lucky enough to open them in packs yet.

Include If There's Room: Anything you want to consider but you're not sure if there will be space in your final 60-card list. For example, Engulf the Shore features flavor text from Tamiyo's Journal. Is that enough to grant it inclusion in a deck focusing on Jace's search for clues? For me, it would depend on how many other cards I thought fit the theme better.

This is also a good time to decide how competitive you want your deck to be. In general, a deck with a tighter focus and more duplicate spells is going to win more games than one where there are a lot of scattered one-ofs. If winning doesn't matter as much to you, go ahead and pack your deck with as much variety as possible. If you want to take home the trophy at your next FNM, though, make sure you are favoring your more powerful cards and that your deck has an effective mana curve that will allow you to play your spells at all stages of the game.

Don't forget to look beyond the current block, either. Origins has cards set on the plane of Innistrad, and there are plenty of flavorful connections between Innistrad and Zendikar. Is your deck focusing on concepts like nightmarish monsters and eldritch horror? I'm pretty sure Void Winnower fits that bill too.

Lastly, don't forget to keep your lists around once preview season begins for Eldritch Moon in July! We're getting another 205 Innistrad-related cards this year, and it's always good to remember what your thought process was during deck building when you start to tweak your Standard deck with whatever new goodies arrive a few months from now.

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