FFL 101: How We Build Decks

Posted in Play Design on July 28, 2017

By Melissa DeTora

Melissa is a former Magic pro player and strategy writer who is now working in R&D on the Play Design team.

Special thanks to Andrew Brown for his help in writing this article.

Hey everyone. As many of you know, this column has replaced Latest Developments, and with the new branding comes a refocus on the column altogether. Sam provided some great insight into how we developed cards for Limited and Standard. With the Play Design column, we are looking to provide even further insight into the balance process. Today we'll be talking about our thought process behind deck building and what we are looking for when building around single cards.

One thing that's crucial to a balanced Standard is to test every card that matters. Many of the cards we print are familiar creatures or effects like Grizzly Bears, Chaplain's Blessing, or Gideon's Reproach. We don't need to test these cards in the Future Future League to understand them. However, there are plenty of cards that are unique, unknown build-arounds, or are intended to see play in Constructed formats. We do a lot of theorycrafting here, but discussing the applications and possibilities of a card just isn't enough. We must get these cards into play. We test every card that we are unsure about.

There are many guidelines we follow when building decks for FFL. In this article, we're going to talk about one of those guidelines. When I'm looking through a card file for the first time, second time, and even tenth time, I look for are cards that are breaking rules of Magic. Some examples of this are cards with a cost reduction (delve, Phyrexian mana), cards that cheat things into play (Aetherworks Marvel, Summoning Trap), or cards that do something differently or at a slightly better rate than previous cards printed before it (Abrade versus Shatter, or Immolating Glare versus Kill Shot). When I'm building decks, I make a list of the cards that are breaking these "rules" and then start deck building from there. We also discuss these cards in meetings and build decks collaboratively. While we are generally working solo, there are a lot of cards and way fewer of us, so having a lot of eyes on our work is helpful.

The example we'll use today is Hazoret's Undying Fury. This is a unique card with an effect that is just begging to be built around. While we're mainly going to be talking about how we build for FFL, these lessons can be applied to deck building in general as well. Here are two questions we can ask ourselves when beginning to build a deck:

  • Question 1: What is the most powerful thing I can do with this? Do the cards exist (in FFL) to make this work? What cards do I need to build the craziest combo deck around this card?

We ask this question first because we want to find the strongest thing to do with the card. There are lots of ways to build around cards, but finding the craziest, most powerful combos is the first thing to look for. Most of the time, the most powerful thing to do is also the least consistent, especially in Standard with a limited card pool. For example, Brood Monitor, Zulaport Cutthroat, and Eldrazi Displacer is an infinite combo in Standard, but it's inconsistent, takes three cards to complete, and is easy to disrupt.

So what is the strongest thing you can do with Hazoret's Undying Fury? It has a converted mana cost cap of five, so that limits the things it can find. At this point, the next step is to brainstorm combos that have a CMC cap of five. Once you have your list of cards, the next step is to actually build the deck. One thing to remember is that the more removal, ramp, and general filler cards you play, the less consistent your combo becomes. Finding the right tools to make the combo as consistent as possible is the key here. Tutoring, deck thinning, and most importantly, including ways to survive while you're setting up are what you are looking for. Hazoret's Undying Fury also shuffles your library before revealing cards, so deck manipulation effects like scry and Brainstorm are out.

  • Question 2: Power level aside, what is the most consistent thing I can do with this? Can my deck function as a combo deck while also having a plan B?

Marvel decks from right after Pro Tour Kaladesh are a great example of this. They play a two-card combo (Aetherworks Marvel and an Eldrazi) but can also play a reasonable, fair game of Magic while they're waiting to draw into their combo pieces. Rogue Refiner helps increase consistency, and planeswalkers like Chandra, Flamecaller are great midgame plays that can also act as win conditions if you can't get there with Marvel. (Chandra is also a fine hit off Marvel.) Attune with Aether helps thin the deck to make Marvel flips more potent.

Here is a decklist Andrew Brown came up with for Hazoret's Undying Fury.

Andrew Brown's Hazoret's Undying Fury

Download Arena Decklist

The first thing I want to point out about this list is the low land count and the eight ways we have to search out lands. Deck thinning is really important in a deck that's looking at random cards from the top of your library. Like I mentioned in the Marvel example above, the fewer lands you have in your deck, the more potent your "flips" will be.

There's a small energy package that enables a few things. It gives us access to a strong removal spell in Harnessed Lightning and allows us to have a resilient threat in Bristling Hydra. The energy package also gives us flexibility when sideboarding. We can "transform" in matchups where the Hazoret's Undying Fury combos are weaker, such as against control decks. Having access to cards like Longtusk Cub or even Lathnu Hellion goes a long way and keeps your opponent guessing during sideboarding.

The next thing this deck has going for it is speed. Hazoret's Undying Fury costs six mana, and the earlier we can cast it, the better. We're playing lots of mana creatures and Chandra, Torch of Defiance to accomplish this, and they double as mana that we can use during the turn we're not allowed to untap our lands.

While this deck does not have a way to go infinite or have something as strong as an Eldrazi, it is essentially cheating on mana by casting multiple cards off a six-mana sorcery. The deck has some cool combos and lots of ways to gain value from Hazoret's Undying Fury. Arlinn Kord and Glorybringer have some cool synergy in that you get a big attack without the exert drawback, and Ishkanah, Grafwidow and Chandra are great ways to help stabilize against faster opponents.

Wrap Up

This pretty much sums up our thought process when building around a specific card. Magic is about exploration and discovery, so we're not going to reveal all our secrets here, but hopefully this is a good starting point for you if you're looking to build combo decks. Next week we'll be diving deeper into our philosophy behind combo decks with another decklist from our FFL vault.

Play Design Story of the Week

In the Pit (our work and play space), we often have discussions about random things, and in a recent discussion we wondered when the most Pro Points per square foot had been gathered in a single location. This reminded Dan of an occasion when a lot of Pro Points were packed into one area. At Patrick Chapin's wedding in 2013, the invite list naturally included a significant number of Pro Tour attendees from throughout the years. They took a group picture, and the calculated Pro point total was 5,907!

This week, Play Design members Dan Burdick and Andrew Brown are in Kyoto, Japan, for Pro Tour Hour of Devastation and have been visiting many of the Pro Teams to learn about their experiences testing the new formats. One of the first stops was team Puzzle Quest. Everyone knows this legendary squad includes towering greats of Magic. Their stature in Pro Tour history happens to correlate with their size in real life: Jon Finkel, William Jensen, Jelger Wiegersma, Shahar Shenhar, and Reid Duke are all well over six-feet tall.

However, their testing space wasn't quite as large as their accomplishments. Japanese architecture and design are amazing, but the apartments aren't exactly known for their spaciousness. The team used every inch of their playing space.

This season's Team Puzzle Quest
Team Puzzle Quest cramming for Pro Tour Hour of Devastation.

Dan and Andrew have been speculating whether the patio in the wedding picture above or the tiny Kyoto living room full of Puzzle Questers had more Magic accomplishments per square foot. It's not exactly clear, but maybe we'll have a better answer after the Pro Tour!

Until next time,

Melissa DeTora
@MelissaDeTora

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