NOTE: Portrayals of people or personalities in this article may have little or nothing to do with real life. The deck and results, however, are real, and show what one can accomplish with incomplete collections and imperfect card choices.
Most articles start out by looking at all the cards that exist, and then assembling a deck from the realm of legal cards. But in the real world, we do not always have access to four-ofs.
…they get new decks.
“Let's run this one,” they say, plopping down another stack of brown cards. And as that first turn ripples around the table and you watch to see what their first land is, you don't know what deck they're playing. You feel that thrill of stepping, turn by turn, into uncharted space – a space where you slowly find out what kind of environment your deck is navigating this game around.
Or will be the groan as Mark finally lays down That Card and you realize that he's playing The Deck That Everyone Hates?
Some folks have literal suitcases of decks to whip out in any given free-for-all. Ray, our group's wild deckbuilder, arrives with a reinforced plastic steamer trunk filled with every multiplayer deck he owns, at least twenty decks in a container the size of a small beer cooler. Each deck is stored neatly in a plastic box with a taped label on the top. Ian, on the other hand, only brings a handful of six carefully selected decks in a battered cardboard box marked “Volvo Parts,” but he has many to choose from at home. And me? I have a scant three or four decks available at any time, since I tend to cannibalize my old decks to build new ones, but they're housed in Pokemon boxes for the amusement of all.
Dmitri, on the other hand… Dmitri had one deck.
We hated that deck.
It's not that Dmitri's deck was a bad deck. We liked it at first. It was a moderately-untuned mono-blue control deck with a lot of blue fliers (Air Elemental for the win, baby!), a handful of Counterspells, and a lot of Control Magic-style spells that stole your men. It worked, even if it wasn't the kind of four-of-everything kinda deck that pro players would build.
But after ten weeks of constant play, Dmitri's “steal things” deck was warping the metagame. No matter what happened, at least one player would be trying to steal your best creature. It wasn't fun, continually having to be on the lookout to ensure that your dudes didn't get yoinked, and playing around at least one Counterspell every game (and often two or three) really cramped the strategies we could play.
People started to build decks to ensure that they didn't get beaten about the head and neck with their own best guys. I bought a set of Brooding Saurians, and Peter put Greater Good in his deck so he could sacrifice his dudes in response to the slightest whiff of thievery.
The problem was, this was the only deck Dmitri had. He was a casual guy, and this was probably the most Magic that he'd ever played in his life. Up until then, like many of you, he'd whipped out the cards occasionally when a Magic-playing pal came to town, but regular play?
Dmitri had never needed more than one deck.
“I don't have the time to build a new deck,” he protested. “I want to, but…”
“Come over to my house this Sunday,” I said. “I'll help you build a new deck.”
Dmitri slumped in his chair. “And I don't have the cards,” he said, pinpointing the real reason. “The decks you have are just too powerful. They have all these big spells, and my only hope is to counter them or steal them. I can't compete!”
“That's not true,” I said. “You can build a deck that wins without Counterspells or a ton of rares.”
“Not with my cards,” he said sadly. “I don't have enough of them.”
Fortunately, we're a giving bunch. “I'll give you a box full of commons,” Ian volunteered, and the next week he showed up with a colossal tray full of mostly Kamigawa- and Mirrodin-era cards. I, too, rooted through my playables to see what I could donate to the “Help Dmitri” cause. And D showed up that Sunday, bright and bushy-tailed.
“The first thing about building a deck,” I said to Dmitri, “Is that you need more than twenty land. You've gotten away with it until now because your blue deck packs a set of Impulses, but that kind of land count is going to screw you elsewhere. You gotta have at least twenty-three, maybe as many as twenty-five.”
“It seems so much,” Dmitri said regretfully. “What if I get land-flooded?”
“Better than getting hosed,” said I. “When you're not playing the all-draw-cards deck, you'll find yourself straining to get to that fifth mana more often than not with only twenty lands.”
“All right,” he said warily, but I could tell this was new to him.
“But how do you know what works?”
I flipped through the large tray of cards. “Well, I look at anything red and black and ask myself whether it fits the strategy. For example?” I pulled out Blood Moon. “I know that our group is really heavy on non-basic lands, and so I think, ‘Gee, that would really help me to keep Kaervek in play once he hits – shutting down everyone's dual lands so they can't Wrath of God would help!' So I put it into the ‘possible' pile.”
“Okay….” D said.
“As I go through, I find all sorts of cards that might work. For example, I also know that Kaervek is expensive, so I have to get out some early defense in order to ensure that I live long enough to cast him (and have enough life to survive once he hits the table and everyone comes for me). And look! Here's a Wall of Souls! And given that he's so pricey, I need to have a lot of land, and look! Here's a Twisted Abomination to swampcycle! And here's a Firebolt, and a Shock, and a Mogg Fanatic….”
By the time I was done, I had a large pile of red and black cards lying on the table.
“When I'm done,” I said, “I'll lay them out in piles, a huge stack of kinda-could-be cards. I usually have about sixty to eighty potential cards when I'm done. Then I look at each of them, deciding whether they'd be good in this deck, and start whittling out the ones that won't be that useful.”
“I see,” Dmitri said.
“The rest of them fall for similar reasons,” I said. “I have a pile here with Avatar of Woe, Avatar of Fury, Bogardan Hellkite, and Stronghold Overseer. But I've already got one gigantic finisher in the form of Kaervek; how many others do I need? I need to whittle that list of Big Dumb Finishers down to one or two, if that.”
“So I cut and snip in a similar fashion, chipping away at the cards like I was a sculptor working with a block of marble, until I have about thirty-six cards to work with. But enough about my deck. Let's start with yours. What's your theme?”
“I was thinking about going green-blue….” Dmitri said.
“That's not a theme,” I corrected him. “That's a set of colors. Colors don't do anything by themselves; it's the cards you pick that do things. What sort of strategy would green-blue enable?”
“Well, I'd have green's big fatties,” Dmitri said. “I'm always getting blasted out of the game by gigantic things I can't hope to match, and so I wanted to have some of my own.”
“Good, good,” I encouraged him. “And the blue is for…?”
He looked furtively from side to side. “Counterspells,” he said guiltily.
“But I don't like feeling so vulnerable!” he cried. “I don't like the idea that my deck can't handle everything. What if I get destroyed by some artifact I wasn't expecting, or a sorcery that wrecks me?”
“Your deck can't handle everything,” I assured him. “And you may note that your Counterspell-based deck isn't an auto-win deck despite all of this control at your fingertips, because you don't have the resources to lock down everyone. Plus, if you cannibalize your mono-blue deck to build a blue-green deck that then becomes the only deck we see from you for another two months, I will vomit out my own intestines!”
“But nothing!” I thundered. “You will build a deck without blue or you will leave this house right now!”
“But I still haven't decided on a theme!” he protested.
“I'll give you a theme!” I said, looking around the table at the green commons we'd assembled. “Your theme is….”
I slapped my hand down on the table, revealing the next card to him.
“That sounds good,” he said.
“It will be red/green!” I said, climbing onto a soapbox to trumpet our goal for the afternoon. “Green for creatures that give us some sort of advantage, and red so we can finish everyone off with Disintegrate when our creature offense dies out!”
With that in mind, we spent the next hour hunting through the cards we had, plucking out all the red and green cards that looked interesting. Then we separated them into piles of four (or three, or two, or however many we had on-hand) so that we could look at each of them in turn. When we were done, we had piles of every common Penumbra card, and Centaur Glades, and big weird red fatties galore.
I pushed a set of cards to the forefront of the table.
“No,” Dmitri said.
I was stunned. Up until now, I'd been telling Dmitri what to do. How dare he contradict me?
“I don't have enough elves for a Wellwisher deck,” he said flatly. “It doesn't work. I need the elves to accelerate, but the Wellwisher? I'd rather keep with the theme of creatures that do something when they die. Or have you forgotten the face of your father?”
“I have not forgotten the theme,” said I, grumpily.
“And the red,” he said, looking at the table. “That's gotta go, too. I only have two Disintegrates here, and the rest of the red creatures don't give me enough to be worth a slot in this creatures-where-we-don't-care-if-they-die deck. The red's not powerful enough. I don't want it.”
“That's heady foolishness,” I protested. “You need the Disintegrates! You need direct damage! Otherwise, you're just playing a green deck that can't do a darned thing about any creature that hits the table! You'll be helpless!”
“No red,” Dmitri said, and I swear he pushed me away to bend over to look at the cards he assembled. “Instead, I'll have Hurricane. It takes out multiple players once I've weakened them with my undying onslaught!”
“I'll force a draw,” he said calmly. And so, ignoring my advice with a reckless abandon, he proceeded to build his deck, pulling cards into piles. Over the next hour I kibitzed, but it was clear that Dmitri was going to forge his own path into the losing bracket, and I could not stop him.
“What's the mana curve like?” I asked.
“One,” he said, pointing at the Elves. “Then three. Then a lot. It should work, though – look at all the land I have now!”
“And do you really need Viridian Longbow? I don't think it's going to be useful…”
This is what Dmitri piloted:
“Looks decent for a deck made out of random commons and what-have-you,” I said approvingly. “But you should have put red in it. C'mon, Jeff's waiting for us over at the cybercafé – let's bring this puppy for a spin!”
We went and played four games in a three-player free-for-all, and Dmitri's deck won two of them. Furthermore, he damn near took the third in a close-fought match against Jeff's blue-white Control deck. He was absolutely right about not needing red; it would have watered down both his threat and his manabase, and usually if he couldn't win with creatures his opponent was so high on life that a Disintegrate wouldn't have pulled it out.
I was also riotously wrong about the Viridian Longbow. It made old, useless Elves into happy little pingers. It wasn't the big guys that frightened this deck, since they'd smash right over them – it was the 1/1 utility guys that tapped for some weird effect. If anything, this needed more Longbows for consistency.
Furthermore, the Centaur Glade was an absolute house – it wasn't the kind of thing we felt good about Naturalizing, but left untended it began to overwhelm the game in short order. Jeff and I Wrathed and Pyroclasmed and weaseled our way to try to destroy all of D's creatures… But just as we had designed it to do, the deck rebounded from all of the global destruction and kept plugging away in a war of attrition it was designed to win. He usually won by stalling for time until he could plop a Mythic Proportions on something and then attack for a boatload.
“I won,” he said, his hands trembling in disbelief.
“Say it,” I said.
“You know,” I said archly. And he did know. He slunk down a little and muttered the words I had so long needed to hear.
“I can win a game without Counterspells,” he whispered proudly, his guilty little secret shattered at long last.
But the best part of all came when I was piloting my new Kaervek the Merciless-related deck in a six-man group game that had been narrowed down to four players. Dmitri was clinging to a single life point but had stabilized behind a wall of Centaur tokens and an Arctic Nishoba. Unfortunately, the game was all but over for him, since I had just cast Kaervek the Merciless...
…except that Ian, piloting his Demon deck, immediately stole Kaervek with Mark of the Oni, leaving me with no blockers.
It was Dmitri's turn. Ian and me were both below 10 life, and D had enough men to take either of us out in a single overwhelming attack. Unfortunately, he had to kill both of us in order to survive. If Dmitri killed me, he left himself vulnerable to Ian, who had a Demon ready to fly over his ground-based army and end the game for him. If he killed Ian, I'd get Kaervek the Merciless back and the next spell he cast would seal his doom.
He stroked his beard.
“So,” he said thoughtfully to Ian. “If I don't kill you this turn, will you promise to let me live until my next turn?”
Ian thought about it. “I think that could be arranged.”
Dmitri grinned. “Sorry, Ferrett,” he said, and I went under to a barrage of 3/3s. Knocked out of the game (and taking my Kaervek with me), I went over to sit down and watch the news as the Democrats took over the House.
A few moments later, Ian came over and sat down beside me. “What happened?” I asked.
“I told Dmitri he could live until his next turn,” he said, a hint of irritation in his voice. “But Dmitri never agreed that I could live to see my next turn. He killed me before I saw my next upkeep.”
I shed a little tear. My protégé had learned his lessons so well.