Populating on a Budget

Posted in Reconstructed on October 2, 2012

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.

Welcome back to ReConstructing on a Budget!

Another budget article has been clamored for weeks since the last one back in July, and it's finally here! With Return to Ravnica in the mix and Standard completely shaken up, a lot of you will be looking to start collecting cards for your new deck as the set releases this weekend. Many of you will also want to build a new deck without having to trade too much away in the process—and budget is a great way to do that!

Wayfaring Temple | Art by Peter Mohrbacher

Before going further, let me briefly recap my rules for budget that I laid out in my last budget article. (You can check out the beginning of that article for more details on each point.)


  1. I will not add any new rares or mythic rares to the decklist. I'd rather make the deck extra budget-y and then let you season to taste with delicious rares than cook it so rare you won't eat it at all.
  2. The one exception to the above is mana fixing. I know this will especially be a point of contention considering how sought after the Ravnica block dual lands are, but the bottom line is you're going to want to have access to these lands for the next two years of Standard. They're certainly worth trading for.
  3. I try not to make substitutions. Budget doesn't need to mean making a worse version of a current deck—it just means building toward an archetype that has easier-to-obtain cards. Cards like Snapcaster Mage and Geist of Saint Traft simply can't be replaced in decks that need them.
  4. Budget doesn't mean bad. I'm not setting out to make a deck we know will be suboptimal through this process. There have been plenty of highly successful low-rare decks throughout Magic's history, and there are certainly ways to follow in their footsteps.

With those core principles refreshed for your memory, let's get into today's deck!

Collective Blessing | Art by Svetlin Velinov

This week is Selesnya Week! As you can probably guess, it's the first in what's going to be a long string of guild-themed weeks. For each of these weeks, I'm going to be tweaking an appropriately guilded deck to match!

It's not simply about having a deck of the appropriate color combinations, though. There's a big difference between a green-white deck and a Selesnya deck for my purposes! I want to show off a deck that puts the core mechanic to good effect and embodies what the guild is designed to do.

In this case, that means populate! This week we're going to be building up our Selesnya army, one token at a time.

Let's take a look at this deck, sent in by Rodrigo Fabbrini:

Rodrigo Fabbrini's Selesnya Tokens

Download Arena Decklist

The Battle Plan

The fundamental plan of Selesnya is to create a token army. The easiest way for them to do this is to fire up the populate engine! Each time you populate, you're adding another threat to the board, often without spending an entire card to do so. Before you know it, your opponent will find him- or herself knee-deep in a token riot.

Rodrigo's deck certainly passes initial muster here, featuring seventeen total cards that create tokens and eight that populate the ranks. The exact numbers on both of those might end up a little different by the time we're done, but he certainly has the right idea of what Selesnya is trying to do!

The nice thing about this kind of creature-heavy midrange strategy is it can play both a short and a long game depending on what kind of deck you're fighting against. Against quick decks, a two-mana 3/3 goes a long way toward holding them off. You have inevitability in the long game against those decks because of your ability to continually populate.

Against slower control decks you can get off to a quick start and not have to expend many cards to make an army. As they sweep your board, you can keep some cards in your hand because you don't have to expend many resources, using cards like Gavony Township and Vitu-Ghazi Guildmage to pump out extra damage. Once they've dealt with your initial threats, you can easily deploy more and continue the damage-dealing process.

The trick for this deck is to ensure it can get its initial engine rolling and keep it going. If unopposed, you're going to roll over them—but if your opponent has a string of individual removal spells (as opposed to board sweepers, like Supreme Verdict) then you're going to have to spend all of your cards early on just to get a board presence. This deck has some good ways to counteract that problem, such as Midnight Haunting, which creates two tokens at instant speed, and there might be more options to consider as well.

Speaking of options, let's begin looking through the decklist!

Rootborn Defenses | Art by Mark Zug

Deck Breakdown

What's working? What isn't? Let's peek at each card (and token!) to see for ourselves.

The Token Production

As mentioned, this deck features a bevy of token makers. Return to Ravnica wants to ensure that you can get to populating, and several of the cards that make tokens are quite powerful.

Call of the Conclave

Call of the Conclave is fantastic, as essentially a Watchwolf you can populate over and over again. Selesnya Charm can kick off your populate chain as a 2/2 vigilance for , and both other modes are very strong, either pumping up your creature large enough to tangle with theirs—or just exiling a large creature outright! Rodrigo has four of each of these, which is certainly the correct number.

Midnight Haunting

Next up on the list is Midnight Haunting. While the tokens this Innistrad card generates are smaller than your average Selesnya token, the fact that it's an instant and that the tokens fly go a long way toward keeping it in. Having some instant-speed action is something I always look for in these sorcery-heavy midrange decks, and Midnight Haunting adds some nice versatility there. While Eyes in the Skies is worth considering because it can populate my other tokens, the one mana is a large enough savings that I'd rather go with the Spirits.

Vitu-Ghazi Guildmage

Next up on the token chain is Vitu-Ghazi Guildmage. The upside to this guy in the long game is tremendous. Populating each turn can get out of hand—as can a supply of 3/3 Centaurs. A curve of turn-two Call of the Conclave, turn-three Guildmage, turn-four begin populating can be enough to defeat many decks on its own if unopposed.

The downsides to the Guildmage is that extras are redundant and that early on you need to set up your token engine. I actually think two or three, not four, is the number you want here: enough so you'll often have one by the midgame, but not so many that you consistently stare at several in your opening hand.

Increasing Devotion

Finally, we get to the singleton Increasing Devotion. While I wouldn't want more than one, and it's certainly not necessary if you don't own one and don't want to trade for it, it fits into a category of one-ofs that I like: the craft-around singleton.

What do I mean? Well, if it's in your hand, you can craft the game around it to ensure it's going to make a big impact. You can set up for a turn where your two Wayfaring Temples are going to grow by +5/+5 apiece out of nowhere, for example. You can attack and then have far more blockers than your opponent expected. Additionally, it is also good with Collective Blessing and helps refill your board after a sweeper or a slew of point-removal spells. I like having one copy of this card around, but wouldn't want more just because of how slow it is and because this deck isn't focused on pumping up its individual tokens.

In decks like this I really want to get off to the races as fast as possible and accelerate into some of my most powerful endgame strategies. While Elves do make you even more susceptible to sweepers, in this deck they just do such fantastic work—especially alongside Collective Blessing: 1/1 accelerators early on, 4/4 beaters as the game goes long! The power of three-drops on turn two makes me pretty excited to play eight elves. I definitely would like to keep all of these.

Wayfaring Temple

What is this deck accelerating into that's so exciting? Well, Wayfaring Temple is certainly on the short list.

Turn-one elf, turn-two Wayfaring Temple, turn-three make a 3/3 token and attack is a pretty incredible start that threatens a lot of problems to beatdown and control decks alike. Beatdown has to hope they can effectively block your Temple or get crushed under its weight, and control practically must have a sweeper or removal spell unless it wants to get attacked for at least 10, if not more, on the subsequent turn.

Temple is one of the key new cards for this deck, and I definitely wouldn't cut any of them.

Oblivion Ring

Green-white decks are usually a little low on ways to interact, so a card like Oblivion Ring is crucial. You don't want to find yourself staring down a frustrating artifact, enchantment, Planeswalker, or even creature that you just can't find a way to remove. I did consider playing one Sundering Growth here, but the ability to also nab Planeswalkers pushed Oblivion Ring just slightly ahead for me.

This card is strong enough for this deck that I'm probably going to want to harness the power of three Oblivion Rings in the final list, just to help increase the interactivity of the deck.


Rancor is a great beatdown card in general, pumping up your creatures and letting them trample through. In this deck, though, I am actually not as interested in playing it as usual. While it is nice to slam on a flying token, this deck generally has long-game inevitability because of all its token production. As a result, I have less of a need to attack for extra damage quickly out of the gates.

Additionally, if this deck has creatures around it's usually going to be in good shape; not having any board presence is where this deck begins to fall apart. I need to draw enough creatures (and token producers) to ensure I always have creatures.

While Rancor certainly isn't bad in this deck, every card comes with an opportunity cost. If I'm going to play an off-theme card, I'd rather play a card that is an aggressive, resilient creature on its own. Fortunately, I can think of one that fits the bill perfectly—but more on that a little later.

Intangible Virtue

The one copy of Virtue is a little odd to me, since it's a card you typically really want or you aren't as interested in. Still, it's certainly a card to consider in either direction.

There are really two ways you can take a deck like this: you can either go "wider," making a lot of small tokens and pumping them up to be fighting machines individually, or you can go "taller," where your plan is to make fewer, but individually larger, big tokens. This deck does slide a little closer to the middle because of Midnight Haunting, but in general I feel like this deck (and Selesnya in general) usually sticks to the taller token plan.

While Virtue is still effective in a "tall" tokens deck, it's certainly far less exciting. And, like was the case with Rancor, I really want to keep the creature pressure up in this deck and not have too many extra cards that aren't creatures. I would need an inordinately large boost to all of my creatures to talk me into playing an effect like this... and where am I going to find something like that?

Collective Blessing

Oh look, an inordinately large boost to all of my creatures! While Blessing is a little pricy at six mana, but with eight mana Elves propelling it out it's not too hard to just cast. It can hit the battlefield as soon as turn three in this deck, but it's equally potent in the long game. This card really adds to the inevitability of this deck.

Additionally, unlike a card like Intangible Virtue, the bonus is enough that control decks live in fear of it! While pumping your creatures in creature matchups is good, against control a pithy +1/+1 and vigilance to a few creatures isn't nearly as threatening. But +3/+3 is a different story! Practically every creature in your deck becomes a must-kill threat once a Blessing hits the battlefield. The added power of 3 full points of damage every attack goes a long way.

Blessing is a little expensive at six mana, and it does hinder your early game when drawn, but its impact on the game is worth the two copies. This is the kind of pumping effect I want to have in this deck.

Conclave Changes

Perhaps staying true to Selesnya's nature, not a lot of actual new cards were added to the revised version of this deck. (Although some of the numbers were certainly jiggled around.) However, there are two additions to look at.

Strangleroot Geist

The Geist has consistently proven itself to be one of the best green cards in Standard, and with Return to Ravnica this undying menace is only becoming easier to cast. While it is more or less completely off theme—something I often greatly strive to avoid in synergy-based decks—it fills a very important role.

I mentioned earlier in this article that this deck has trouble if your opponent has a ton of pinpoint removal spells. If your opponent deals with each of your creatures in turn, you're going to have a tough time winning or getting your primary engine up and running. However, Strangleroot Geist changes the equation.

First of all, its undying makes it difficult to fully deal with. Okay, sure, maybe that's obvious. What's less obvious is how it fits into the Selesnya-versus-control play pattern. If your opponent is spending time drawing cards and using pinpoint removal to kill off each creature as you cast it, then anything your opponent doesn't deal with is going to keep hitting him or her, presuming you can deploy new threats your opponent has to deal with turn after turn. As a result, any creature that's sitting around and still on the table will be hitting your opponent while he or she is fighting off your other slew of threats.

What does this boil down to? The simple version is that Strangleroot Geist is going to keep hitting opponents over and over while they're dealing with your other threats. This damage builds up fast. And, better yet, once they're at the point when they need to sweep the board there's a good chance the Geist will come back and keep hitting for damage afterward. As much as I dislike off-theme cards, Strangleroot Geist helps fill a gap this deck has.

Rootborn Defenses

I really like for these kinds of decks to have a little extra action at instant speed, and adding in a little extra population (especially with fewer guildmages) was something I was looking to do.

While Sundering Growth is also a good candidate, Rootborn Defenses helps fight back against Supreme Verdict in a major way and also is just good in creature brawls. If your opponent attacks you with everything, thinking he or she has a slight upper hand, Rootborn Defenses will create a bloodbath! It can also just protect individual creatures or populate when necessary. While I only want one of this style of card, I like having one there—especially because if your opponent sees it he or she is going to play around it for the rest of the match.

With those tweaks and many of the aforementioned numbers changes, that brings our new list to:

Gavin Verhey's Population Nation

Download Arena Decklist

If you're looking at giving Selesnya tokens a try, this is a great place to start! Without using many nonland rares at all, you have a very competitive deck on your hands. If you're looking to cut rares out of the deck because of card availability, you can even cut the Devotion and Blessings if necessary.

If you're looking for non-budget improvements, some cards I would consider are Thragtusk; Grove of the Guardian; Trostani, Selesnya's Voice; Armada Wurm; and Parallel Lives. They each take the deck in a different direction, but it could be an avenue worth exploring depending on what you have access to.

Honorable Mentions

Return to Ravnica Standard is full of exciting new archetypes—even when on a budget! If Selesnya isn't your thing, take a look at some of these decklists for inspiration:

Alvin Bartolome's Red Deck Wins

Download Arena Decklist

Mitchell Carlon's Izzet Infinite Combo

Download Arena Decklist

Corey Sullivan's Full Bloom

Download Arena Decklist

Alastair Rees's Azorius Tempo

Download Arena Decklist

Luke Paulsen's Rats!

Download Arena Decklist

Eamon Pirruccello's Parallel Populace

Download Arena Decklist

Michael John Chang Orr's Mono-Blue Budget

Download Arena Decklist

John Joseph Aguado's Ethereal Stalker

Download Arena Decklist

Tony Camper's GutterDelver

Download Arena Decklist

Shinji Yamamoto's Golgari Juggernaut

Download Arena Decklist

Return to Seattle

In just a few short weeks, Pro Tour Return to Ravnica in Seattle will be upon us! The Pro Tour format will be Modern, with Return to Ravnica. What does the brand new set add into the wildly diverse format? Well, let's see what you can come up with!

Format: Modern, including Return to Ravnica
Restrictions: Submit a competitively-focused Modern decklist which includes at least one new Return to Ravnica card
Deadline: Monday October 8, at 6 p.m. Pacific Time
Send all decklists via email by clicking the "Respond via Email" link at the bottom of this article

Like past Pro Tour weeks, we're going to focus on the more competitive axis of deck building. So send in your competitive decks including at least one Return to Ravnica card (they must be new cards—Ravnica dual lands don't count!) and we'll see what exciting deck comes out of the process!

In the meantime, feel free to share any comments or questions you have about this deck with me on Twitter or in this article's forums and I'll be sure to read them.

Have fun as the set releases this weekend! I'll be back next week with a Standard deck built around a specific Return to Ravnica card. See you then!



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