A Mixed Bag

Posted in Reconstructed on November 23, 2015

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.

In a sense, nearly every week on ReConstructed is a trip into my mailbag—but this week is a little different than normal.

As we get toward the end of the year and start snuggling up by the fire with our smartphones to read all the latest in Magic (you do that too, right?), I have three pretty different articles lined up for you. And we kick the first of the three this week with something ReConstructed hasn't actually ever done before: a mailbag column!

Across the social-media Multiverse, I put out the beacon for questions about deck building. And you heeded the call! Questions poured in from across the realms.

And it's time to answer them.

Are you ready? Away we go!

@sirt29: Are there any rules of thumb when it comes to 2-ofs and 1-ofs?

Yes! Absolutely. Card numbers are one of the trickiest elements of building a deck, and were a popular question this week. This one comes from Twitter, but I received similar questions on each platform.

The more copies of a card in your deck, the more likely you are to draw it. That's something we can all agree on. So, naturally, playing four copies of a card makes sense because you want to draw it a lot. But what of the other numbers?

As a general rule of thumb (since that's what you asked for), my baseline metric for a three-of is, "I am usually happy to see this card, but it isn't always good and I don't want to draw a ton of them." A good example card is something like Painful Truths; it's a solid card, but there are points in the game when I don't want to draw it and I usually don't want to draw three.

My metric for a two-of is, "This card is situational and I definitely don't want to see two. It would be nice to have one to try and draw to if the game goes long." My classic example for this is a board sweeper in a midrange deck, or a high-on-the-curve card in an aggro or midrange deck. You really don't want it in your opening hand, and you usually don't need a second, but when you get into topdeck mode it's nice to have that in your deck. Additionally, if it does show up in your opener, you can craft the game around it.

My metric for a one-of is similar to a two-of, but even more extreme. You really don't want to see this early or ever draw two. For example, Elspeth, Sun's Champion in a deck with a relatively low curve—it's a game-changer, but it is going to sit and doing nothing in your hand a lot of the time. Another good reason to play one-ofs is for tutor targets and diversifying options, which is a little different.

Hopefully that helps! For a more in-depth overview, I also recommend checking out my first-ever ReConstructed article, "Zero to Sixty," where I go into this in depth.

Lookingupanddown: Where's the critical point in a toolbox deck between singleton specific answers and cards that search them up?

And hey, speaking of one-of tutor targets, here we go! Thanks, Tumblr!

One of the most oft-repeated deck-building blunders I see is people going a little too far with their toolbox.

To give context, a toolbox deck is a deck that has tutors—ways to find specific cards—and then a lot of one-of cards to go find as your "toolbox" of options.

Primeval Titan | Art by Aleksi Briclot

It can be tempting to fill your deck up with one-ofs to make your toolbox as robust as possible. However, the question you have to constantly ask yourself is this: "How often am I actually going to search for this card?"

Most of the time, there's a narrow band of three, maybe four cards that you're going to commonly get. Maybe you want to play one situational card on top of that. But the problem with playing too many is that you're spending deck slots on situational cards you don't always want—and if you're playing a lot of them, then that means you are going to be drawing those situational cards often. That's certainly not ideal.

So, in general, I advise people to really narrow down their toolboxes. Just because something can happen doesn't mean you need to have a toolbox answer for it.

Okay. So, with all that said, to the question of finding the right equilibrium, it's very deck-dependent. But a good general rule is this: don't have more cards you wouldn't be happy to normally draw than tutors. If you're okay drawing the card in general, then by all means, break it down. (For example, having five different kinds of instant-speed removal in a Mystical Teachings deck is okay because they're all functionally similar and they give you more options at a low cost.)

However, if you start playing so many cards you wouldn't be happy drawing in the normal course of a game that they outnumber your tutors, well, then you're going to be drawing the situational cards more often—which starts to defeat the point.

‏@Pineappley64: When testing a mana base, how often does mana flood/screw have to happen to cause a change in the number of lands for the deck?

My analogy is that tuning a deck is like hanging a painting.

You put the painting on the nail, and then it dips slightly to the left. You push it to the right, and it starts dipping back to the left. Then you fool around with it for a while, get it to balance in the middle...and realize that you wish you had put the nail a little higher.

Deck building is similar. Once you're past the initial build phase and you know you have a concept that works, it really is about playing games and making slight, incremental tweaks until it seems to perform just right. I'd be wary of making changes based on one individual game—almost any deck can get mana flooded or shorted—but if you play five games and in three of them you were short lands, that's probably a sign you should try adding another land and continuing.

‏@Lemegeton: when you build a deck, in particular after rotation/new set how many games should you play before making changes?

In general, I like to play five games in a row, and then reevaluate and make changes, followed by five games, and more changes, and so on. That ensures that you're not just changing everything so constantly that you end up with messy data, and also gives you a lot of room to constantly evolve your deck.

‏@tmstieler: when should you move off 24 lands, and how low does your curve need to be to do so?

Well, 24 is a good default, but there are a lot of times I will go under. Some good reasons include:

  • Having a lot of cantrips that draw you additional cards or mana producers that aren't lands. In Modern or Legacy, for example, many decks run 20–22 lands. (Or fewer!)
  • Your curve would prefer to be mana light rather than mana flooded. (Traditional mono-red, for example, can always cast its cheap burn spells later on, while if you draw too many lands you're just going to run out of things to do.)

Goblin Guide | Art by Warren Mahy

To specifically answer your question: If your curve is primarily one-drops and two-drops, with some threes and only a few fours. If you're playing five-drops, I'm dubious about playing 23 or fewer lands.

Cobrakmmndr: how do I build a proper mana base including things like color fixing, number of lands, and number of fetch lands verses fetchable sources?

Very carefully.

The art of making a mana base has many different elements to it. It really depends on which cards are legal in the format and what your deck is trying to do. Five of the elements I always consider are:

  • What color do I need early in the game? I'm going to need at least thirteen or fourteen sources to be happy about playing turn-one spells of that color.
  • What multiple-mana-symbol costs are in my deck? If my deck features a card that costs BBB, I'm going to need to play appropriately to cast it.
  • How am I going to be using my mana in the late game? For example, if I'm playing a deck with a bunch of UU counterspells, I'm going to want to have access to UUUU so I can counter twice in a turn.
  • How many untapped sources do I have? How far behind is this deck okay playing if a lot of its dual lands enter the battlefield tapped?
  • A base number of lands is around 24–25. If you're heavy controlling, you'll generally want to go higher. Heavy aggression with a low curve, go lower.

Hopefully some of those tips help out!

Hamitasgarov: Re: Fetch lands. I find them annoying in decks with higher mana costs because, in the end, I play with one less land for every fetch land I play. Are there decks that want more or less fetch lands?

A common belief is that fetch lands drastically reduce how easy it is to get more mana to play your larger spells. After all, they are pulling lands out of your deck!

However, in actuality, the deck thinning is pretty negligible. Not so much that it's entirely irrelevant, but enough that I wouldn't start making a lot of deck-building decisions around it. Keep in mind that by the time you crack a fetch land you've already kept your opening hand, meaning that you likely have mana sources. Each fetch land you use only changes the likelihood of each draw by a few percentage points. So, in general, I wouldn't use that as a huge factor.

The main reasons to play fetch lands are:

  • Abilities like landfall that care about lands
  • Untapped mana fixing
  • Filling up your graveyard

If your deck doesn't need those elements, then fetch lands might not be for you. In general, you're going to want the second one to some extent. How many fetch lands you want depends entirely on how relevant the other things are to you—if you have landfall and delve, then you should probably be trying to cram in twelve fetch lands. Otherwise, it's just another mana-fixing land.

@dude_1818: What sort of stain/finish do you recommend for a 4-season deck?

I'm a big fan of Karn's Stain and Plane Sealer. If it worked for Mirrodin, it can work for you too!

‏@kruger_bass: When should I think of a plan B, and when should I focus on plan A?

I like to think about it in this way: You should always prepare for plan A. You should always have a plan B.

If you're playing a deck that can operate on multiple axes (as many of the best decks tend to do), then you will have multiple battle plans. You should typically lead with your strongest—but be ready to switch if necessary. The whole point of a plan B is having additional versatility and flexibility, after all.

John Conan Reznor: I don't get control decks. I get why people like aggro decks, midrange, red burn decks, green ramp decks, token decks, and some (but not all) combo decks, but one thing I never really understood was the appeal of control decks. Whenever people start talking control, my eyes begin to glaze over. Blue might be my favorite color in real life, but I don't get it in Magic at all. Where do I begin with them and what's the best time to play one?

Coming in from my email inbox is John, with a great question!

First of all: I get a lot of questions along these lines, "Why doesn't X work for me?" And I think it's very important to realize that not every deck is for everybody. Some people love playing mono-red. Some people dislike playing mono-red. That doesn't make them right or wrong—it's just their preference and what they find fun. It is a game, after all.

Thoughtseize | Art by Lucas Graciano

Think about it like a TV show. If everyone seems to like a show—let's say Firefly—and I watch five episodes, I shouldn't feel the need to finish it even if I don't get it just because everybody else likes it. Similarly, even though I love Doctor Who, I'm not going to try and force it on someone who doesn't like it. (Fortunately, I like both, so we're safe here.)

With that said, the key to understanding blue control is knowing that, at its core, it is about the belief that you will win the long game. If you just hold on for long enough, blue has all the tools to be victorious. It can draw cards and counter spells, and in the game of Magic if you can deny your opponent their spells while resolving more of your own, you just are going to win.

If you're looking for a place to start, honestly the best way is just to experience it. Pick up a control deck that did well at a recent tournament, try playing it in the format, and you'll quickly see what it is trying to do. It has a steep learning curve, but it's something you can really learn by doing.

Damullet: How can one balance the enjoyment of winning from building a "top tier" deck with the Johnny joy of a sweet brew?

Ah, the eternal struggle. How do we Johnny-Spikes win while still expressing ourselves?

A way that I always tended to scratch that itch back when I was playing in high-level tournaments (provided that playing some sweet and powerful new deck didn't quite work out) was to find a couple awesome tech cards, perhaps for the sideboard, that I could play with. The first time I ever qualified for US Nationals, I played an Urzatron deck...with Imaginary Pet in the sideboard. I don't know how many people ever qualified with Imaginary Pet, but I'm happy to be one of the few.

One thing that is important though: if you're trying to win by being different just for the sake of being different, that is just a fancy way of saying you're likely playing with a suboptimal deck. You have to actually have a reason. In my case, Imaginary Pet was actually good against Zoo decks. If you want to win and have rogue parts of your deck, you should totally go for it—provided it's for the right reasons.

Mrpopogod: How do you properly construct a sideboard for an aggro deck that doesn't compromise too much on its speed and consistency?

Another common mistake I see is people over-sideboarding. They bring in ten cards with a smirk on their face...then don't have enough cards to cut and end up removing crucial pieces of their deck to fit them all.

The key is just to figure it out when deck building. Lay out your sideboard, see what you're bringing in and out in any matchup, and if you have to start hurting your deck's core to bring in cards and move a card just "sideways" in functionality, it might not be worth it.

And in an aggro deck, this is truer than ever; if you cut your aggressive core, then you're just going to fall behind and not efficiently do your thing. Here's a little tip: in general, the cards I sideboard out most in aggressive decks are the most expensive cards on my curve, because they are least integral to me getting a fast start, and (hopefully) my sideboard cards will turn the tide in my favor in a similar fashion.

GSR_Apple: Whenever I build decks, I build them with a theme in mind. The decks are almost never good, but they are really fun to play. How can I build a deck that can be good when used in competitive play, yet also really fun to play, and still follow a theme?

At some point, there is a line between thematic and competitive. For example, your "Crew of the Weatherlight" theme deck is probably not going to go real far in tournaments—last I checked, Gerrard Capashen wasn't tearing up the Legacy scene.

However, what can totally work are more linear, mechanic-grounded themes. For example, tribal, or building around a mechanic. Allies can totally work as a deck. Exploit can totally work as a deck. Ingest/process can totally work as a deck. These are all heavily themed decks that take advantage of having a lot of one mechanic—and might be a great place to start.

‏@jjelin: how do you balance between "adjusting to the meta" and "tuning to beat whatever you happened to see last"?

Great question!

It certainly is a narrow line, as especially in local store environments, they can be very similar.

Speaking just to local metagames, the key here is just gathering enough data to be able to isolate what's really going on. For example, if you go to play in one FNM and lose to Eldrazi Ramp twice, that could be an anomaly. If you go to play in three consecutive weeks of FNM and lose to Eldrazi Ramp twice every week, that's indicative of a larger problem you should fix.

On a larger scale, such as at the GP or PTQ level, the players you're going to face are so tuned in that it's less about the local metagame and more about the worldwide trends. (I think almost every time I played in a large event and somebody told me, "Just so you know, in this area everybody likes to play control/aggro/etc.," their prediction didn't match up to what actually happened in the event.) In that case, it really isn't about what you faced last, but rather, what the world has been facing lately. In which case, I would tune to have some weapons to fight that deck.

One final note: playing the metagame isn't just about looking for what is there, but also for what isn't there. A new combo deck show up in Modern? Maybe people cut their artifact hate to fight it and it's time to bust out your Cranial Platings. Nobody playing control right now? Well, maybe it means that control is weak—but it might also mean that people aren't prepared for control, which means this could be the event to make it work. Looking in this negative space can be very valuable.

Sarpadianempiresvol-viii: When there are too many awesome cards to include in a decklist, how do you decide which ones to include and which ones to cut?

Another deck builder's dilemma! Oh, truly, the struggles we must face.

When there are a lot of viable powerful cards, the thing I look for to unite them is synergies. If I'm playing a deck with green and white, and I'm going to play Thragtusk anyway, then Restoration Angel is going to win out over other powerful four-drops because it synergizes well with the rest of the deck.

I also personally prefer to lean in the direction of cards that let me interact with what my opponent is doing, since it gives me more agency over the game—and, ideally, if my deck is full of really strong cards, I should win a game in which I have more agency over what's going on.

Blended Specialty

In two weeks, we'll be at my last article before we hit holiday best-of reruns! It's crazy to think we're already there. But before I go, I want to do one of my favorites: a Topical Blend!

I've done one the past two years (2013 and 2014), and this year I kept waiting for another opportunity to do one, but there were just so many sets and decks and theme weeks to talk about that I never found the right time—until right now.

So here's how this works: I'm going to give you a list of ten non-Magic topics and ten Magic topics. You'll vote on your favorites. The winners of each poll will somehow be combined in an article that uses both of those topics!

Ready to see what you're voting on this time around? Here are your options:

Vote away! My article-writing fate is in your hands.

In the meantime, if you have any thoughts or comments on this article, I'd love to hear from you. As always, feel free to send me a tweet or ask me a question on my Tumblr, and I'll be sure to take a look.

Thanks for all of your questions, and talk with you again next week!




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