Four Lessons From 2013

Posted in Reconstructed on December 10, 2013

By Gavin Verhey

When Gavin Verhey was eleven, he dreamt of a job making Magic cards—and now as a Magic designer, he's living his dream! Gavin has been writing about Magic since 2005.

A long and wonderful year of Magic deck building has led us to the final week of ReConstructed in 2013.

It feels like not that long ago I kicked off the year by previewing Obzedat, Ghost Council. We've talked about many great decks this year, from everything as odd as from Blistercoil Weird combo decks to straightforward Boros decks. And yet here we are, at the end of the year.

Rather than working on another deck, I'd like to shift the focus to the top tournament decks of the year. I wanted to take an opportunity to look back at 2013 and highlight four deck-building lessons we can take away from the year.

Ready? Let's get started!

1: Attack from Multiple Axes

Something I've mentioned over and over again in ReConstructed all year is the idea that good decks—like good stories—are about more than one thing.

A lot of people try and build single-minded decks, that only really have one thing going on—and then, if that one thing encounters resistance, if that path becomes closed, suddenly the whole deck begins to crumble. Let's take a look at one of the defining decks of the year:

Shahar Shenhar's RWU Flash

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RWU Flash was one of the most dominant decks of the year. Not only did it emerge as one of the strongest decks in pre-Theros Standard, but a deck not too dissimilar in its premise even rose to prominence in Modern!

Take a look at that decklist. What makes this deck so strong?

Sure, it certainly sports a lot of strong cards—there's no doubt about that—but its versatility is remarkable. When needed, you can play a control game by using your removal spells, board sweepers, card drawing, and countermagic. But you can quickly transition into a more aggressive mode by using Restoration Angel, allowing for some draws that threaten to end the game much more quickly.

Restoration Angel

Worth noting is that this deck has several "pivot" cards, which allow it to play either direction. Restoration Angel can beat down or flicker Augur of Bolas and Snapcaster Mage to play a more controlling game. Warleader's Helix and Pillar of Flame look like cards to contain creatures... but plenty often they can end up going to the dome (especially via Snapcaster Mage) to end the game. And speaking of Snapcaster Mage, there's a creature that does it all: attack, block, reuse controlling spells, and then fires off burn spells to close out the game.

Let's take a look at another popular deck from this year:

Tom Martell - The Aristocrats

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Unlike RWU Flash, which can pivot itself with out-of-nowhere tempo, The Aristocrats is much more along the axis of a beatdown deck. Sporting a low creature curve, The Aristocrats has some draws that can kill quickly.

But, like RWU Flash, the deck has several other things going for it.

Need to play a longer, more controlling game? Skirsdag High Priest ensures a swarm of 5/5 demons will run your opponent over. Falkenrath Aristocrat provides a way to go over the top and keep a threat around that is going to survive Supreme Verdict. Clever use of Orzhov Charm can protect your creatures in addition to dealing with theirs.

Skirsdag High Priest
Falkenrath Aristocrat

Although The Aristocrats core plan doesn't swing around as quickly as RWU's does, the deck still makes sure it has plenty of unique ways to fight and interact with the game.

Make sure your deck can fight your opponent in many different ways and you're going to have a lot more flexibility to work with.

2: Mind the Mana Bases

More than any other element, the nonbasic lands available in the format are going to dictate what decks are going to work well.

Perhaps the clearest example of this is looking at the format pre- and post-Gatecrash.

While, yes, Gatecrash did bring a swath of new cards for its dual lands to play with, the lands alone would have changed what decks were playable. For example, the simple addition of Sacred Foundry and Godless Shrine made a deck like The Aristocrats actually work. Boros Reckoner and Orzhov Charm were certainly good in that deck, but without them the deck would have likely still have existed in some form—the same can't be said for the dual lands.

Sacred Foundry
Godless Shrine

But this manifests in numerous ways. Let's take a look at control in current Standard as another example.

When Theros released, there was a lot of buzz about both red-white-blue and white-blue-black (Esper) control. They each had their own merits. However, Esper control had something red-white-blue didn't: better mana.

Guillaume Wafo-Tapa Esper Control

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Eight scry lands is such a massive upgrade from just four. Perhaps we'll see red-white-blue rise to more prominence once it has more scry lands available.

Temple of Deceit
Temple of Silence

Of course, it's not always about what's there—sometimes it's about severe absences. For example, in Scars of Mirrodin Block Constructed, there was so little mana fixing that it dictated that most of the decks to play fewer colors: seven out of the Top 8 decks at Pro Tour Nagoya were monocolor! But for a more recent example, you can take a look at Theros's impact on Standard.

With the ten "buddy lands" (Glacial Fortress and its brethren), plus Cavern of Souls and Farseek, leaving Standard as Theros rotated in, the range of mana fixing became weaker. While all of the strength in monocolored devotion certainly hasn't hurt, the weaker mana bases have certainly helped turn the format toward fewer colors.

Cavern of Souls

Lands are often one of the most overlooked parts of deck building—but in reality, the lands you have available in the format can be all the difference between a deck working or not.

3: Maximize Your Best Cards

In a lot of decks, there are cards that stand out among the rest. These cards are just so strong in the particular deck that you want to draw them as often as possible—and you want to make them as powerful as you can when you draw them.

One crystal clear example of this is devotion.

Jérémy Dezani Mono-blue Devotion

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Owen Turtenwald

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There aren't even that many cards with devotion in Standard, and even a smaller number of those are ones you might expect to see Standard play. However, the ones that do hit are just so powerful that they are worth making as good as possible.

For example, look at Master of Waves. Master is a card that you basically always want to draw any number of when playing mono-blue. It's so strong that the deck is willing to play cards like Frostburn Weird to help kick up its devotion further! Frostburn Weird is just a bonus multiplier to the power of Master of Waves, and since Master and Thassa are both so powerful, the oddball Weird is more than worth it.

Master of Waves
Frostburn Weird

Devotion is one such example. But there are plenty others. Let's take a look at another much-discussed deck for its time.

Melissa DeTora - Bant Control

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One of the strongest cards in Melissa's deck is Restoration Angel. Flickering a Thragtusk is pretty nice—but Melissa includes a whole suite of cards to take advantage of Restoration Angel with, even Centaur Healer, to ensure one of her strongest cards was always powered on.

But perhaps the strongest card in Melissa's deck is Sphinx's Revelation. In a deck that's able to produce such large amounts such as this one, Melissa is going to win most long games. The trick is just getting there... and that's where something like Centaur Healer comes in! The 3/3 for three blocks quick beatdown creatures and also hands you 3 life. As mentioned above, it feeds back into Restoration Angel's strength as well, but a card that buys time like this is particularly well-suited here.

Sphinx's Revelation
Centaur Healer

What's the best thing your deck can do? Is it supported well? It's always worth considering what you could add or tweak to help amplify your best cards. You don't want to fall into the trap of onlysupporting your best card, but if you can support your best card more without hurting the underlying structure of the deck much, then it is definitely worth trying.

4: Make the Most of Your Mana

It has always been true in Magic that you want to use your mana well and efficiently. You don't really want to be playing a three-drop on turns three, four, and five—you want to curve out. A lot of this lies squarely in deck building: if you want to take full advantage of all your mana every turn, you should construct your deck with an aim to do that.

This year, it seems like the best decks have particularly been focusing on this maxim. Perhaps it's just the combination of scry lands, Gates, and Ravnica dual lands that make people want to maximize their mana, but it appears more true than ever.

Rakdos Guildgate
Godless Shrine

Take a look at Craig Wescoe's Selesnya deck, for example:

Craig Wescoe

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Wescoe's Selesnya was a fast deck with a great curve. What was a factor that propelled him to victory? Look at all of those one-drops!

Featuring thirteen one-mana cards in the deck, Wescoe helped ensure his first mana would be used, and on any subsequent turn he would likely have one-drops that could use the spare mana as well. Even if he didn't have a Loxodon Smiter on turn three, he could play another two-drop and a one-drop and be in great shape. By playing enough low-mana cards, he was able to consistently take full advantage of all his resources.

The Mono-Blue Devotion deck is another great example. With devotion, you want to use your mana as best you can to kick up the number of mana symbols on the battlefield, and a critical mass of one-drops does exactly that. By using one-drops like Judge's Familiar and Cloudfin Raptor, you can hit the magical number of five symbols to make Thassa a creature with ease.

Loxodon Smiter
Judge's Familiar

But another tactic the mono-blue deck uses to maximize its mana is card selection. The more card selection your deck has, the better it can naturally use its mana! Cards like Omenspeaker and Thassa that scry help you to always have the right cards to play on your curve.

The Mono-Black Devotion deck also takes advantage of maximizing its mana using cards like Thoughtseize, Pack Rat, Underworld Connections and Erebos. For a more controlling deck—traditionally an archetype that leaves plenty of mana unspent—it certainly makes exceptional use of its lands.

Pack Rat
Erebos, God of the Dead

When building your deck, take a look at your curve. (If you aren't sure how to best do that, definitely take a look at the third section of this article on building decks.) Could you bring it down at all? Are there more one-drops you could play to economically make use of your mana? It's always something worth keeping in mind.

Time Travel

Well, that does it for 2013. What a year!

But before I hop in my TARDIS and chart a course for 2014, I wanted to thank you all for the great decks you sent in this year! It's always exciting to check my inbox and sort through a couple hundred decklists, and you are what helps makes this column be possible at all. Thanks for all of your contributions to the column, whether you are one of the regular contributors or only sent a deck in once. It's been one marvelous deck after another, and I got to work on quite a few that I've been ecstatic about. Without you, this column wouldn't exist.

If you have any final thoughts for the year you wanted to send my way, feel free to post them in the forums or send me a tweet and I'll be sure to take a look.

I'm looking forward to what 2014 has in store for us! I may know what the cards are—but I have no idea what you're going to do with them, which makes it all the more exciting. I can't wait to see what you're going to do with some of the Born of the Gods cards...

But I'm getting ahead of myself. That's for the second week back from the break. I'll see you then—and in the meantime, hopefully you'll enjoy some reruns of some of my favorite articles from this year.

Happy holidays, and may the odds be ever in your favor.


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