Improving Your Tournament Deck

Posted in Serious Fun on April 4, 2006

By Anthony Alongi

It may come as a shock to most of the tournament enthusiasts who have clicked on this link hoping for Grand Prix strategy – but your finely tuned decks are not quite as good as they could be.

Sure, they're filled with really expensive rares and foily things. Sure, you've spent weeks tuning them against the best gauntlet of metagame samples you can uncover. And sure, every spell you play is ultra-efficient.

It's not good enough. You're only ever going to be able to kill a single opponent with them. That may be enough for you now – but at some point, you're going to find yourself at a table with more than one opponent. (Oh yes, you will. I've been at this longer than you, you see; and I have the long string of emails from former tournament players to prove it.) At that point, you will stare at your perfect duel deck and ask yourself the inevitable question:

How do I turn this pile of crap into something useful?

As I hinted above, you are not the first to ask. And you're certainly not alone. When polling this column's readership, I found that among the strategy topics offered two weeks ago, the plurality of readers wanted to know pretty much the same thing:

Which of the following strategy-related topics interests you the most?
How to move a deck from duel-ready to multiplayer-chaos-ready 1281 33.4%
How to build an all-around rigorous deck capable of handling most basic casual formats 1168 30.4%
How to analyze threats in a free-for-all 544 14.2%
How to determine if a card is good or bad in multiplayer 526 13.7%
How to meta-game blocks in casual formats 288 7.5%
Something else 32 0.8%
Total 3839 100.0%

Of course, most of my readers are not tournament types. They're more casual in their approach to Magic, and they probably already play multiplayer games all the time. No matter what direction you're coming from, you're interested to know how and when a tournament duel deck can become a multiplayer machine.

So that's what we're going to discuss today.

(For the record, I will be handling most of the other strategic topics, as well as dealing with the topics raised in the other polls, in future weeks for some time. Strategy comes first, since that poll received the most total votes.)

Our Mission, Should We Choose To Accept

Today I'm going to provide the broad guidelines for converting a popular tournament deck into a fairly rigorous multiplayer deck. Before I do this, I need to say four things that will become necessary to repeat to several message board enthusiasts and emailers, since they'll ignore this part and complain anyway:

  1. I am not going to take individual requests. Please, hear this now: If you email me with a deck you want tweaked – even if it's an exact replica of a deck you see in this column – I am not going to help you. This falls under my "no deck help" rule, where I don't give you suggestions, advice, thoughts, or any other sort of reaction to your favorite deck. The decks you see here in the column represent the limit of my interest in deck analysis.
    There's just not enough time, people. Thanks for understanding.
  2. Less is more. The idea is to stay as close to the original flavor (and, where possible, actual cards) of the tournament deck as possible. Usually, the reason I won't be including your favorite card in the decks I adjust is because it was not necessary. Who says so? Me. I get to write the column. Call it a perk.
    That doesn't mean you can't put the card in the deck! I promise to divert my all-seeing eyes long enough for you to sneak in a copy or two of that absolutely unnecessary card. You can whisper to yourself (quietly, to avoid my all-hearing ears!) that you know better than my all-knowing brain. And we can still be friends. Probably.
  3. Format doesn't make much difference to me. While I'll try to keep a Standard deck Standard-legal, I'm more interested in illustrating interesting possibilities. So if you see an "illegal" card slip in, don't panic.
  4. There is no guarantee. You can follow every step of this process, transform a Pro Tour winning deck into something I say looks pretty cool…and still get your butt handed to you at the next free-for-all. That's because (a) it takes more than cards to win a game and (b) every group is different. Please, before you invest lots of money in chase rares, think about your own group, your own play skill, and your own interests.
    I did not propose this topic to make you a multiplayer star. First, there's no such thing. Second, success in group play comes from multiple sources. Victory is only one of them.

So you've come by a successful tournament deck. It's sitting in your hands. Cost is obviously not an option, since you're buying cards suitable for tournament play. But you feel empty inside, since you want to play this deck against several people at once. What do you do?

Step One: Establish The Goal

The first thing you're going to do is make sure you understand how the deck wins. If you haven't played the deck before (you net-decker, you!), get off your butt and play it a few times first. Understand the Plan A and the Plan B of the deck – how it wins ideally, and how (if!) it wins if the first victory path doesn't work out.

The reason why we're starting with this step, as easy as it may sound, is very straightforward: we're going to do our best to keep that path intact. If that path gets bent out of shape, we've lost the point of the exercise. So identifying the deck's path to victory has to come first.

Let's take a deck Mike Flores highlighted last week – Michael Diezel's Black/White deck which came in 17th at Pro Tour Honolulu this year:

Michael Diezel - Kamehameha's Grave Pact

As Mike suggested in his analysis, Nantuko Husk combined with Promise of Bunrei is one of a few ways this deck can win. (For the sake of argument, we'll call it Path A – but it doesn't matter if it was the primary or not.) Another big way to win: lots of small creatures under the influence of an Orzhov Pontiff. Ghost Council of Orzhova is a linchpin to either path, and of course swings for four damage on its own.

Here's another deck Mike analyzed – this time a Green/White deck that made Top 8 at the 2005 World Championships:

Katsuhiro Mori

Here, victory comes from a large creature, like the Kodama or Yosei, making its way through the battlefield because saprolings use Glare of Subdual to suppress the opposition's defenders. It's also possible to win through pure saproling madness, since the Guildmage can pump them (and the Jitte is good on any creature, even a 1/1 token).

For now, we're going to ignore the sideboards – but we'll see some of those cards again before we're done today!

Step Two: Separate The Deck

Once you've figured out the deck's goal, you should begin to pull apart the deck and put the component cards into categories. There should three:

  • Lands with mana abilities only
  • Critical victory path cards
  • Everything else

I'm aware that the most focused tournament decks will have very big second piles, and very small third piles. Red damage decks may have no third pile at all, since everything in such a deck is usually geared toward dealing 20 to the head. But many decks will have utility – countermagic, discard, land destruction, permanent removal, etc. – that you can legitimately claim are not part of the deck's core. Also, any lands that do things beyond mana (e.g., Volrath's Stronghold) will often end up in that third pile.

Michael Diezel's deck might break down like this:

Lands with mana abilities only (20):

Critical victory path cards (12):

Everything else (28):

When in doubt, put it in the third pile. Here's Katsuhiro Mori's deck broken down:

Lands with mana abilities only (18):

Arashi, the Sky Asunder
Critical victory path cards (22):

Everything else (20):

You may, of course, argue with these divisions all you like (e.g., Vitu-Ghazi, the City Tree could easily be considered part of the second deck's victory path). I can't honestly say I'm much interested in splitting hairs – the point is the piles, not the specific choices down to the card. This is an artistic, not a scientific, exercise.

Step Three: Let The Animals Sort 'Em Out

Look over the piles. Examine each card. How does each card stack up along the following "animal" elements?

Element What It Means Example – Strong Example – Fair Example - Weak
Cockroach The card has repeatable or replicable effects. Howling Mine Sneak Attack Natural Affinity
Gorilla The card impacts many cards at once. Balance Bane of the Living Mogg Fanatic
Pigeon The card is happier with more people around. Verdant Force Culling Scales Story Circle
Plankton The card feeds everyone. Awakening Cowardice Obliterate
Rattlesnake The card warns away attention. Pernicious Deed Beast Attack (in graveyard) Misdirection
Spider The card traps intruders with nasty surprises. Misdirection Beast Attack (in hand) Pernicious Deed

Notice that rattlesnake and spider work in nearly opposite ways – you can either warn someone away openly, or draw them in and smash them. Both work in group play, though I believe warning away requires less effort (and works with multiple people at a time). Spider's main goal beyond some card advantage is to teach others a lesson – there are some cards, especially those with buyback or flashback, that start more like a "spider" and become more like a "rattlesnake" after the first cast.

Many tournament-quality cards are "spider" cards. Spider cards work really well in duels, because they tend to be instants and they tend to catch an opponent off guard. One of the first lessons duelists need to learn when shifting to multiplayer is that spiders are good – but rattlesnakes are better. The difference is that between Shock and Seal of Fire.

The two decks we're looking at today don't start with many spider cards – but I want to mention this since lots of other tournament decks do use them.

Let's look at the animal element grid again for each deck, pointing out the stars for each element. Michael's deck first, with the critical path cards in red:

Animal Element Great Examples
Cockroach Ghost Council of Orzhova; Shizo, Death's Storehouse
Gorilla Orzhov Pontiff
Pigeon n/a
Plankton n/a
Rattlesnake Promise of Bunrei; Nantuko Husk; Ghost Council of Orzhova
Spider Mortify

And now the sampling from Katsuhiro's deck, with the critical items again in red:

Animal Element Great Examples
Cockroach Glare of Subdual; Selesnya Guildmage
Gorilla Arashi, the Sky Asunder (channeled)
Pigeon n/a
Plankton n/a
Rattlesnake Yosei, the Morning Star; Umezawa's Jitte
Spider Seed Spark

These are just the best examples of each element. You can squeeze all the cards in there if you like. But I'm just doing this for illustration.

The real part of this exercise is to rate each card along all six elements, and weed out those cards with little or no punch in any of them. Here are the cards I'd identify from each deck as suspect in group play:

Michael's B/W deck:


Requiring analysis:

Katsushiro's G/W deck:


Requiring analysis:

Now, I'm not saying we're going to replace all 37 slots. Cards like Birds of Paradise and Kami of Ancient Law have a place in plenty of decks. Their presence doesn't make a deck "not a multiplayer deck", but in large quantities, they're the kind of card that cannot provide enough punch against two or more opponents. Use them sparingly.

Step Four: Find Replacements

There are two ways you can go with replacements. First, you can try to keep the functionality of the cards you're taking out. For example:

-1 Birds of Paradise
-3 Llanowar Elves

+4 Sakura-Tribe Elder

Sakura-Tribe Elder is a favorite among multiplayer enthusiasts (and, I know, tournament players as well). In group play, it serves as a "Seal of Chump Block and Get the Land I Need", which is good for a couple of turns of peace and quiet if you can afford to leave it out there. That, plus the more aggressive mana needs of most multiplayer decks, makes this switch smart – we don't lose mana capacity, but we gain flexibility.

The second kind of replacement is when you just make space for a theme more important to the deck. To wit:

-4 Castigate
-2 Mortify

+4 Grave Pact
+2 Vindicate

Grave Pact is already in Michael's sideboard, so he doesn't have to go shopping when he converts to multiplayer madness! What a bargain. And as he could no doubt tell us (had I not strapped him to a chair and gagged him while I tinkered with his precious creation), Grave Pact plays beautifully to the strengths of this deck.

With Grave Pact probably doing a fine job on creatures, Mortify at instant speed is less helpful than Vindicate at sorcery speed. If instant speed is really important, consider replacing with Disenchant (or something else that can remove artifacts).

Let's keep going:

-4 Isamaru, Hound of Konda
-2 Savannah Lions

+3 Orzhov Guildmage
+3 Souls of the Faultless

Here, we gladly sacrifice efficiency for durability – and in the case of the Guildmage, a new path to victory in a very long and complicated game. We're still getting good, quality creatures on the board by turn 3, which is a couple turns too late for a tournament duel but just fine in multiplayer.

-4 Dark Confidant
+3 Seizan, Perverter of Truth
+1 Swamp

Seizan, Perverter of Truth
This replacement is just fun – sure, everyone else can benefit; but then again, you should benefit more, shouldn't you? You keep the flavor of life loss in return for extra cards. Multiplayer decks are pretty expensive (we just switched out two mana for five mana!), so we can't get by with 22 lands anymore. Going up to 24 is still very much a possibility; a cycling land like Barren Moor might be an option in the right format.

Switching back to the other deck:

-4 Wood Elves
-3 Pithing Needle

+1 Verdant Force
+1 Seedborn Muse
+4 Kodama's Reach
+1 Biorhythm

I'm happy leaving Congregation at Dawn in the deck, if we're going to find something fun like Verdant Force. Seedborn Muse is already in the sideboard, so it has a short trip to make. Kodama's Reach will get us to the high levels of mana we need.

Meanwhile, we don't need a card like Pithing Needle in most multiplayer environments. Sure, it can be useful, and some groups might make it worth your while, depending on what they play. But we're interested in increasing the multiplayer power of the deck, and a single Needle can't cover the annoying abilities of all those opponents' permanents.

Step Five: Step Back And Check The Gaps

Every multiplayer deck should try to answer at least four questions, with more certainly possible if your group presents special challenges. This is just a minimum:

  1. Can my deck win in more than one way? Orzhov Guildmage and Biorhythm were two very conscious choices – they help you win games when your first option is no longer an option.
  2. Ensnaring Bridge
    What does my deck do about one or more problematic creatures? This is two questions snuck into one – you have to be able to deal with quantity, and you have to be able to deal with quality. Both tournament decks came pretty well-equipped here. The B/W has spot removal and the Pontiff (and gained Grave Pact); the G/W has its own masses as well as Glare of Subdual. It's possible the G/W deck could benefit from spot removal from something that taps for devastating effect – perhaps or Visara the Dreadful – but the options in Standard are few. Mass removal like Wrath of God is there in the sideboard - you'll have to decide if that's right for what your group plays.
  3. What does my deck do about non-creature permanents? You don't always have to have an answer for that Cowardice or Ensnaring Bridge. But you'll feel better if your deck has a way around the occasional bomb.
  4. How does my deck disrupt a combo? The bane of most multiplayer environments is the combo deck that can produce an arbitrarily large amount of mana, and/or create a continual loop for an eventually fatal effect. You might be able to depend on someone else at the table having a timely Counterspell; or you could try to squeeze one or two tricks in your own deck. The B/W deck might benefit from Nezumi Graverobber, which can throw off combos based on sackable (and recurrable) permanents. The G/W deck might take a look into more artifact or enchantment removal (perhaps going back to Invasion block for Aura Shards), since most combos depend on at least one artifact or enchantment.

If you can answer those four questions to your satisfaction, you're in good enough shape to test the decks.

Step Six: Play Away

The only way you're going to be sure the deck works is to test it – but you're a tournament jockey, so you already knew that, didn't you?

Here's where the decks stand as I pass them on to you for further tailoring:

Multiplayer Ready Gravepact


Mori Multiplayer

I don't need email feedback on these decks. That's better directed toward the message boards. I will, however, be interested to read feedback in either form on this sort of strategy article and whether readers feel it would make a decent short (or occasional) series.

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