Deck-Building Daze

Posted in Serious Fun on October 14, 2008

By Kelly Digges

The last week has been, shall we say, a mixed bag.

See, I went to a sci-fi / fantasy convention last weekend. (No, not a Star Trek convention—just a regular old literary SF con.) I had a great time, got some books signed, and even got to hang out (and swap Magic stories!) with one of my favorite authors. I was even convinced, after some cajoling, to try on some clothing, or "garb."

I was looking forward to coming home, getting back to my daily routine, and playing some games in the box league I mentioned last week. I had finally built my deck and was ready to go.

Just one problem...

...I got sick. It seems that while my mind was soaking up writing wisdom and great stories from people from all over the continent, my body was soaking up some kind of horrible germs, also from all over the continent. This is apparently common enough that it has a name: "con crud." In my case, it took the form of a persistent head and chest cold.

The first day, I was so sick I just stayed in bed and read an 800-page novel cover-to-cover (well, re-read, and actually I think I read the last 50 pages or so the next day, but still). But the second day I was feeling a little bit better and started getting restless. Wheezing and coughing, cooped up in my apartment... What to do, what to do?

Ah, but the world of Magic doesn't pause for my convalescence. We're still fresh off the release of Shards of Alara, and that's an exciting time. I always get out to the Prerelease and usually get some drafting in, and it's not long before I have a healthy pile of cards from the new set. I play them in those Limited formats, I open packs, I get used to the sight of the new cards... but I haven't put them in any decks yet. They're all just sitting in piles, usually on my kitchen table, waiting for me to find some time and start cramming them into decks. But time has been in short supply lately. What to do, what to do?

...Yeah, okay, this isn't that hard, but it took me a while to figure it out. I get kind of groggy when I'm sick.

Magic cards!

Sick days + new set = deck-building! Duh, if I do say so myself. Before long, I'd spread out my new Shards of Alara cards and caught deck-building fever. (Also, actual fever.)

If you play online, of course, Shards of Alara's not out quite yet. I'm primarily a paper player, so the deck-building bug has already gotten to me. Online players will find their incubation period a little longer, but it's certainly not too early to start thinking about new decks.

A while back I talked about some of the strategies I use to pull decks together out of a big collection. This, however, is a little different. I've got this big injection of new cards I'm eager to use. How can I incorporate the new set into my deck-building? Why, that's an excellent question, and I'm glad I asked.

    Sprinkle In

The simplest and easiest thing to do with new cards is to find spots for them in your existing decks. This is, I think, what most people do when a new set comes out, and these are the cards that are most likely to catch your eye.

Jhessian Infiltrator simply belongs in one (or both!) of my green-blue decks. Rip-Clan Crasher, Sangrite Surge, and Branching Bolt are promising additions to my friend Laura's red-green deck. Actually, all ten of the Ravnica / Shadowmoor two-color decks that Laura and I made (using exclusively two-color cards) get some neat stuff in Shards of Alara. Sigil Blessing is perfect for the green-white deck, which has a token subtheme, and Steward of Valeron and Qasali Ambusher are just neat cards that I'd like to put in there. Tidehollow Sculler could go in the white-black deck, although that deck is enough of a terror already). Hindering Light fits perfectly in the white-blue deck, whose theme is, basically, "Don't mess with me."

I pull the two-color decks out of "the Suitcase," my carrying case full of decks, and started tweaking.

When you're adding to existing decks, there are two basic ways you can do it: add or replace. Replacing is good if there are some cards in there you weren't too thrilled with, or if you're gung-ho about keeping your decks to 60 cards. I tend to do that, but more out of habit than anything else. Strategic thinkers will point out that if you go over 60 cards, you draw that one really great card less often. But I would counter that if you cut a card you really like to stay at 60, you never draw it at all. Your mileage, as always, may vary.

Adding is a fine way to go if you're happy with the deck as-is and just want to toss in a couple of new cards to see how they play. Just remember to throw in a couple of lands now and then so you can still play your spells. The problem with adding, of course, is that while the first five or ten cards won't make much of a difference, things can get out of hand. You'll start to find yourself overflowing deck boxes, running out of sleeves (if you sleeve), having trouble shuffling, and throwing your back out when you go to grab a deck. How big is too big? That, my friends, is up to you.

I recently opened up an Ajani Vengeant and two Bull Cerodons for the league I'm in. I didn't end up building a deck that can support them (I'll show you my league deck another time), so there they sat—three cards I really like, unused and unloved.

What's that you say? I have a whole deck that's exclusively built for awesome cards that are red and white? Why, so I do!

Holy Zeal

Download Arena Decklist

I went the adding route on this one. This deck started out as Ravnica / Shadowmoor only, but once Laura decided that the two-color decks would contain exclusively two-color cards (and lands), I opened them up to any and all two-color cards from the past. Squee's Embrace and Reflect Damage are relatively new additions.

I added Ajani Vengeant and the two Bull Cerodons, along with a Plains and a Mountain. Easy-peasy.

    Make from Scratch

When I've got enough cards from a new set, my favorite thing to do with a new set is build decks using only the new cards. They're made to go together, after all. Sometimes there are new cards that don't really stand on their own, but really shine if you put them in a deck with the right support.

Sometimes this will be as simple as taking a Prerelease deck that played well and expanding it to 60 cards. The 40-card decks in intro packs are also a good starting point. Or maybe you just put the cards you like in a deck. My favorite method—whether with intro packs, a Prerelease or Launch Party deck, or just a pile of new cards—is to find a theme in the new set and build a deck around it.

Shards of Alara is great for this, because each shard has a distinct theme that makes a good starting point. And shard theme decks don't have to be three colors, either; a green-white exalted deck, a red-green devour deck, or a blue-black artifact deck would all work fine if you've got the cards.

I already mentioned, I think, how much I like exalted. But when you have just one creature with exalted out, it's not that exciting. Since Shards of Alara came out, I've been thinking about an exalted deck and what it would look like. I've got a good selection of the low-cost exalted cards, plus Battlegrace Angel, Stoic Angel, and some basically solid creatures like Rhox War Monk. I've also got not one but two Clarion Ultimatums. I have no idea how they'll play, so I added one to this deck to see how it fares.

Here's what I came up with:

Exalted, Angels

Download Arena Decklist

This deck should be a lot of fun. As I get a feel for how it plays, odds are good that I'll think of cards from older sets that would be a good fit and add those as I go. My tendency is to start with cards from just a few sets, then add single cards as they catch my eye, regardless of what set they're from. I just find it easier that way. But if you prefer to start with a great big pile of cards from across your whole collection, go for it.

    Mix and Match

Sometimes, of course, I'll see a theme in the new set that I like, but I won't have quite enough cards to make a deck out of it (a common problem when a set is brand new). Or perhaps that theme in a new set will dovetail nicely with a theme from an older set, or a deck idea that was already rattling around my head, or a deck that I already made at some point. For example, Lorwyn Elves might make me want to dig up my Onslaught Elves again. Shadowmoor's two-color rewards caused me to pull out nearly all of my Ravnica gold cards for another spin. And Naya's "5 power matters" theme—combined with the fact that most of its beefy beasties are, um, Beasts—has gotten me thinking about an Onslaught / Shards of Alara Beast deck, rewarding Spearbreaker Behemoth and Krosan Groundshaker for both their size and their creature type.

This can look like the "Choose Your Own Standard" method I mentioned a while back—building a deck with cards from two blocks—but it can also be as easy as pulling out a bunch of cards from your collection that match the theme. Esper likes artifacts; any artifact will do. Unearth will play well with other graveyard strategies from the past (why, hello, River Kelpie). And any 5-power creature in Magic is perfectly able to draw you a card with Drumhunter or smash something with Where Ancients Tread.

The first of these mashups that came to my mind is lots of fun, if a bit obvious. I'm pretty much a sucker for artifacts, and the Esper cards in Shards of Alara are certainly not the first to reward me for it. I thought back to all the neat artifact bonuses in Mirrodin block, and before I knew it I had pulled out the Mirrodin box and started making piles.

White and blue had most of the cards I was really interested in, so I decided I could leave black on the sidelines this time. In Mirrodin block, there was always this tension between adding artifacts and adding colored cards that like artifacts. But in Esper, most of the cards that reward artifacts are artifacts themselves. So I can play blue and white cards that do blue and white things without putting a dent in my artifact count. Neat!

March of the Machines

Download Arena Decklist

As I said, I'll be on the lookout for artifacts from other sets that would really hum here.

And this isn't the only weird, cross-block Esper artifact deck I've thought of, either. I am also filled with an overwhelming urge to put Wingrattle Scarecrow and Windwright Mage in the same deck. Wingrattle Scarecrow is an artifact! Windwright Mage is blue and black! How perfect is that?

I have no idea whether an Esper / Scarecrow deck will be any good, but I'm definitely going to give it a shot.

    Main Ingredients

Earlier I added some cool new cards to an existing deck. Ajani Vengeant and Bull Cerodon don't rely on Naya's theme to function; they're just fun cards that I wanted to play with, and they slotted right into a deck I already had. All well and good...

...but sometimes the awesome new card I open isn't a good fit for any of the decks I already have. Maybe it's a set of colors I can't support. Maybe it doesn't fit well with any of the themes of my existing decks. Or maybe it's one of those "build around me" cards that practically demands a whole new deck to support it.

Whatever the case, if you want to put it in a deck but don't have a deck to put it in, that means it's deck-building time. Building a deck around a card or a couple of cards is different from building one around a theme (or just a set of colors), and obviously it really depends on the card.

Shards of Alara has a lot of really cool three-color cards I want to use, but I only have one or two existing three-color decks. Maybe that means fiddling with the mana of one of the two-color decks so I can "splash" that third color. But maybe it means building a three-color deck from scratch.

I've got a Broodmate Dragon and a Violent Ultimatum I really don't know what to do with. They're both black-red-green, and the Ultimatum is really color-intensive. They're also both awesome.

I haven't finished this deck yet, but I've got a pretty good idea where it's going. See, for some reason I'm really good at opening Crucible of Fire. I've already got three of them. The Crucible is doubly good with Broodmate Dragon, and of course it works fine with any other Dragons, including Lorwyn changelings like War-Spike Changeling.

(As an aside, I'm starting to feel like I need 12 of every changeling. They're just such a handy way to round out basically any tribal deck. My one Taurean Mauler and one Cairn Wanderer are currently chilling in a very bad Kamigawa Demon / Ogre deck, being both, well, both, but they'd be great in a Dragon deck too.)

So I'm building a red-black-green Dragon deck. Or maybe I'm just throwing a bunch of awesome red, black, and green cards in a deck. I haven't decided yet. But the Dragon deck sounds like more fun. I've got a Dragon Roost somewhere I can dig up. Scourge had Dragonspeaker Shaman and Bladewing's Thrall, which I don't have but could probably scrounge up. And, most importantly, I'll need dragons! Lots of dragons. As Magic developer Erik Lauer would say, "Fwoooooooosh!" (This is the sound a dragon makes when it's breathing fire on everything in sight.)

    Your Turn

How do you approach deck-building with a new set? Do you favor one of the methods I talked about, switch between them, or use some other method entirely? Does a new set get you building new decks, or do you prefer beefing up your old decks a bit at a time? And, while we're on the subject, do you like to add cards as you go, or keep your decks at 60?

Send me an email or head to the forums and let me know!

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