Call Me Mr. Suitcase

Posted in Serious Fun on August 12, 2008

By Kelly Digges

Kelly Digges has had many roles at Wizards over the years, including creative text writer, R&D editor, website copyeditor, lead website editor, Serious Fun column author, and design/development team member on multiple sets.

When I reported last week on my multiplayer experience at Magic Weekend, you may or may not have noticed that I didn't actually build any of the decks we used. We had one deck that Laura Casperson made, two decks that Chris Millar had brought for gunslinging, one more that Chris had thrown together 20 minutes before the game, and one that Seamus Campbell borrowed from U.S. Nationals competitor Mat Marr.

We scraped together five decks, but wow, that was a lot of work! The decks also weren't really meant for multiplayer and weren't especially equal in power level, but that's bound to happen to some degree any time you sit down for casual. As the person who is, more often than not, bringing the game together, my main concern was that I really ought to have some decks I could hand out to get things rolling rather than scrambling around for decks at the last minute.

I have some decks. But I'm going to potentially be supplying decks for whole casual games—and writing them up here—and it would be boring, both for you and for me, to see the same decks over and over. I think that means I'm going to need a lot of decks, a whole suitcase of decks, at my side, all the time.

That, in turn, means rolling up my sleeves and getting up to my elbows in Magic cards. And let me tell you, I've got a lot of cards.

Taking up a Collection

BrainstormMost people don't need as many decks as I'm going to, and I'm guessing many people don't have as big a collection as I do. But if you have any cards that aren't in decks, at some point you'll find yourself going through them, trying to find the cards that go in this deck, right now. I'm guessing that I'm not the only one that can find it hard to narrow my collection of cards down to a collection of decks. One of the best things that makes Magic what it is, choice, can also make it tough to get deck building started. And I suspect many of you have had some issues dealing with this, whatever the size of your collection.

Let me tell you, I find it pretty tough. I get overloaded, looking through that many cards with no good way of narrowing down my options. Out of so many cards, from so many sets, how am I supposed to pick which ones go in this deck?

See, when I first started playing, I didn't have this "problem". I started with 90 cards from Revised. Sometimes I divided them into two 45-card decks (each two colors with half the cards from the fifth color) to teach people, but most of the time I just shuffled them up and played against the guys who'd gotten me into Magic. With 90 cards, all five colors, and only 20 lands among them, I honestly can't imagine now how I ever so much as played a spell, but I was having fun.

As I got more cards (and lands!), I shuffled them in, too, until eventually some of my other friends started playing, going up against my teetering Technicolor monstrosity with increasingly svelte one- and two-color decks. Naturally, they were winning consistently, and I wasn't having much fun anymore. It was time to change my tune. So instead of just throwing every card I owned into one deck, I picked my favorite color—green, of course—and threw every card of that color I owned into a deck with half that many Forests. Every time I got more cards, I tossed the green ones into the deck, along with one Forest for every two of them, until eventually my green deck was as big as my five-color "deck" had been.

Eventually, of course, my collection grew, and grew, and grew, and I started building individual decks of (gasp!) 60 cards. These days, when I want to build a deck, I'm staring down more than 20,000 cards ranging across 30 or 40 different sets. It's a daunting sight.

Yes, this really is a shelf just for Magic cards.

Those boxes hold 4,000 cards each, which, with the lid off, looks something like this:

Just one of my 4,000-count card boxes.

Fortunately, my collection is organized. My friend David got sick of me shrugging when he asked if I had a particular card, so he borrowed the whole collection (at that time, several thousand cards lighter) for a weekend and put it in order by set, rarity within set, and color within rarity. Astonishingly, I've managed to keep up with that system in the last few years, partly with help from Laura (whose ulterior motive, of course, is knowing where all the cards are so she can build decks).

If I just sit down with that many cards in front of me, I freeze. Or I go through all of them, pull out everything that interests me, get a repetitive motion injury, and still end up with a pile of 300 cards to cull down into a deck. (I usually build 60-card decks—partly out of habit, and partly because I don't like shuffling anything bigger.)

Needless to say, I've been doing a lot of thinking lately about how to make this task a little less daunting. The faster and more painless it is to winnow 20,000 cards down to 60, the sooner I can get back to the important business of playing.

Opening Theme

Momir Vig, Simic Visionary
The first and most obvious way to narrow down card choices is to build decks around a particular theme. If I'm building a deck like my old who-knows-how-many-card green deck I'm looking at every green card I've got. But if I decide to build a Treefolk deck, or a Mirrorweave deck, or a +1/+1 counter deck, suddenly the options get a lot narrower, and thus a lot easier to deal with.

This is one reason I like Elder Dragon Highlander (or EDH), despite the depth of its card pool. By picking a legendary creature as my general, I'm not just picking colors—ideally, I'm picking some mechanical theme to build my deck around. That's why my Momir Vig, Simic Visionary deck isn't just a green-blue deck; it's a searchable toolbox of creatures, packed with ways to take advantage of knowing the top card of my library.

But building on a theme isn't just for EDH. It can help narrow down the choices from any card pool, whether it's picking a Lorwyn or Onslaught tribe, a Ravnica block guild, a mechanical theme like domain or artifacts, or a broader, flavor-based theme.

I'm working on some tribal decks right now, but my big project is making a deck for each color pair, drawing mostly on cards from Ravnica block and Shadowmoor block.

Hunting Gatherer

As I'm thinking about themes and/or sets to draw from, sometimes I find myself unable to remember what lurks within those big white card boxes. I've never done the work to do any kind of electronic tracking of my collection, but I can do a Gatherer search to remind myself what's available. I might search for Treefolk, or for "each basic land type," or for all the artifacts from Mirrodin block and Urza block.

Now, there's no way I'll have all the cards that come up, but Gatherer searches give me a place to start when I'm searching through my collection, not to mention a list of cards to keep an eye out for when I'm going through friends' trade binders.

Format Wars

Nacatl War-Pride
Building a deck is very different depending on what format you're building your deck for, naturally. I've sometimes built Block or Standard decks to avoid going through my entire collection, and Laura has kept most of her decks Lorwyn / Shadowmoor Block-legal just because the most recent cards are the ones she knows. That didn't stop her from putting a singleton Nacatl War-Pride in her Elf Warrior deck when she realized how awesome it would be with Obsidian Battle-Axe and Bramblewood Paragon... and that, in turn, didn't make the deck a Standard deck, not really. It's a Lorwyn block deck with one Future Sight card in it... but it turns out that's not a tournament format.

When casual players are polled about what format they play, they usually click "Vintage" or "Legacy," the two formats that allow any cards that haven't specifically been banned or restricted. But the truth, I suspect, is that most casual Magic fans play with the cards they have rather than worrying about adhering to any particular format. For most groups, none of the players have a card pool that would make this really problematic, and if somebody starts doing something degenerate playgroups tend to have ways to self-regulate.

Other groups do pick a particular format, and adhere to the Banned & Restricted list for that format. That can result in some oddities; Ponder, for instance, is restricted in Vintage these days (that's one copy per deck), but isn't likely to cause trouble in most casual decks. This is why other groups say that as long as a deck is legal in some format, it's fine.

Any of these approaches works; your mileage may vary. But when I'm trying to make one deck out of my entire collection, I want to narrow my choices down a little bit more than, say, "Legacy."

The Choice Is Yours

Last year for the Invitational, Mark Rosewater ran a format called Choose Your Own Standard, which lets each player pick two blocks and one core set from Sixth Edition forward, and build decks using only cards from these sets.

If you can get your whole group to do it (or build a bunch of decks for them to use), this might actually be a good solution to the problem I discussed two weeks ago in Casual Casualties. Choose Your Own Standard lets you use cards from sets across almost all of Magic's history, but keeps the decks on reasonably equal footing.

But even if you're not using it as a format for your group, I find that narrowing my focus to a few blocks that are heavy on the mechanical themes I'm looking for is a good way to get the process started.

Using the two-block idea as a guideline lets you skip over some of the tricky questions that arise when you use it as a format, such as whether and how to use sets before Ice Age, whether the Time Spiral "timeshifted" cards count as part of that block, and whether Lorwyn and Shadowmoor count as one block or two. Go with whichever answer makes your deck-building easier—that's the point!

The nice thing about using Choose Your Own Standard as an inspiration rather than a full format is that then you get to fudge a little (or a lot, depending on your preference). If I build an Invasion / Ravnica green-blue deck but then see some Eventide cards I really want to toss in there, there's nothing stopping me.

Inspired by my idea about Ravnica / Shadowmoor decks, Laura dove in and began building them, starting with red-green. But she did something I didn't expect. To help narrow down the unfamiliar Ravnica block even further, she made sure that every colored card in the deck was both colors. That restricted her options even further and also let her Boartusk Lieges, Runes of the Deus, and Ulasht, the Hate Seed do their very best work.

Boartusk's Bite

Download Arena Decklist

Is it the most powerful red-green deck possible? Heck no. Is it the best red-green deck you could build out of my collection? Oh, probably not. But it's an easy-to-build Choose Your Own Standard deck, and it's really red-green. Looks great to me.

The Deep End

I'm approaching this, of course, from my own perspective: someone diving into a massive card pool with the simple goal of building decks and no place to start. I want to make sure I have decks on hand for others to use that will be satisfying for them to play, and for us to play against.

For many of you I'm sure that's not typical though. I'm curious how all of you build decks. How big a collection do you have? Do you have decks that you update over time with new cards, or do you build entirely new decks as sets come out? Do you tend to build around colors, themes, individual cards, or something else? What formats or other deck building restrictions do you or your group use to keep power level reasonably close? Are you the kind of player that easily builds more decks the more cards you have, or does having more choices make you feel like I described in this article? If so, what do you do? Let me know!

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