Toothless Strategies

Posted in Serious Fun on May 15, 2007

By The Ferrett

Mind_ExtractionLast Wednesday, I sat in a chair, had an IV put into my arm, and passed out. When I woke up three hours later, I was missing ten teeth.

That's right; I had to go in for major dental surgery. Turns out my gums are so bad the underlying bone structure had been dissolving, so not only did I have to have several teeth extracted to prevent infection, but they also had to do some reconstructive incisions on my gums to try to patch things together to keep the remaining twenty or so teeth in.

As such, my mouth is a cavern of wounds, and....

"Wait a minute, Ferrett," you say. "Didn't I click the link to read about Magic strategy? I mean, sorry about the teeth and all, but really—this is, not Write about the cards, dude, the cards!"

Wow, I'd like to agree with you. But as I write this, it's Thursday, my deadline for the Tuesday column—and I'm still whacked out on Percocet and other lovely painkillers. I had a pretty good idea on a column on playing control decks in multiplayer, but I'm having problems just finding the keys on my keyboard, let alone discussing the fine details of when to play a Counterspell against seven people.

(Though honestly, isn't "Cavern of Wounds" a Magic card waiting to happen? Sounds like a legendary land to me! Something black-red. Get right on designing that for me, wouldja, Mark?)

So thanks to the lovely drugs suffusing my system, I'm down to the basics. Fortunately, I can discuss the basics, because our group's been integrating a couple of new players as of late—and in watching them build their first decks, I've been seeing the same errors made repeatedly. So rather than talking about something high-end, let's discuss the elementary issues of deck design.

Because if you don't know these things when you start, your decks will be as toothless as, well... Me.

Five Common Novice Misperceptions In Deck Design

When you're starting to build a deck, there are an awful lot of things you should take into consideration—but here are five of the same misperceptions that I see cropping up time and time again when people are building their first couple of casual decks. Let's smash each of 'em down.

Misperception: "I want to play Green."
The Error: A color is not a strategy.

Force of Nature, Sporesower Thallid, Kodama's Reach

It's no surprise that beginning players tend to gravitate towards colors. After all, Magic is the most complex game in the world, and the number of cards and card types and card effects are bewildering when you're first starting out.

But whereas a lesser game would have just flown apart thanks to its own convoluted rules, the colors are what tie Magic together. You dig that Summoner's Pact works because green is good with creatures, and that Pact of Negation works because blue is the color that counters things. Without those colors in place, the effects of those cards would seem arbitrary—but the colors tie them all together so that you can remember what's supposed to do what.

And it's true, each color has its own strength. But you do not—I repeat, not—want to build a deck around a color.

You want a strategy.

As an example, black is awfully good at killing things. But "killing things" won't win you the game—so what? You've killed everything on the board! Are you any closer to doing 20 damage to your opponent's head?

Kellogg's Frosted Flakes is part of a nutritionally balanced breakfast, but without the milk and bananas and a supplemental vitamin it's all just sugar. Likewise, "killing things" is part of a strategy that may eventually kill your opponent, but without something else to back it up, you're dead.

"Colors" are too loose of an idea to form a coherent strategy on their own. Even within green, the color of creatures, there are trampling creatures, little low-cost weenie creatures that swarm, creatures that boost other creatures, creatures that need creatures (which are the luckiest creatures of all). There are a ton of ideas and schemes that fall under that loose umbrella of "green," and trying to be "green" without clarification will make you as much of a threat as Kermit the Frog. (And he couldn't even beat Doc Hopper. That took Animal, man. And a Might of Oaks.)

Any bare-bones strategy looks something like this:

  1. Here's what I'm going to use to kill my opponent.
  2. Here's how my opponent is most likely going to try to stop me, and how I'm going to counter that.

That can take any number of forms. "I'm going to counter everything my opponent does in the early game, and then drop a huge, self-protecting threat on the table to kill him. He's probably going to get around that by casting a lot of spells—and I can't counter them all—so I'll use some kind of mass removal to kill anything I can't counter."

There's a strategy. Note that the words "color" don't enter into it at all.

Here's another classic strategy:

"I'm going to drop a bunch of low-cost dorks and try to overwhelm my opponent before he can get the mana to mount a sizeable defense. He's probably going to try to get around that by playing blockers so I can't hit him in the face, so I'll use burn spells to destroy his creatures and do the final points of damage to his head."

There. Again, no colors. Admittedly, these strategies point you at colors—the words "burn spell" usually mean red—but there's nothing stopping you from playing, say, three Flying Men and finishing with Psionic Blast. Likewise, the classic "I'll counter everything my opponent does" strategy usually means blue-white Counterspells and a big Angel and Wrath of God.... But "counter" could also mean The Rock, countering his threats with pinpoint removal and hand destruction like Cabal Therapy, a Spiritmonger to ride to victory upon, and Pernicious Deed to sweep the field.

Colors are secondary. Find a card that you think you could use to beat someone with, and then think of cards that would help that card's strategy, and then try to figure out how your opponent could stop that strategy. Then choose cards that will work together, in sync, to accomplish that goal.

The colors will come. But don't start from colors.

Misperception: "My Deck Has A Backup Plan!"
The Error: It probably shouldn't.

A lot of novice decks try to do too many things at once. For example, we've been undergoing a bit of a Sliver craze hereabouts, so we had a guy who had a deck that was a Sliver beatdown deck. It had all the usual culprits of Might Sliver and Sinew Sliver and a couple of creature boosters.

Screeching Sliver
But it also splashed blue for Screeching Sliver and Shadow Sliver. Which made us wonder, so we asked.

"Well," he explained brightly, "If I get into a big dumb creature standoff, I can switch into decking mode! I'll Millstone everyone's decks! Or I can switch into shadow mode and beat down!"

Perhaps a fine idea in theory, but that's never what happened. What actually happened was that when he needed bigger guys to fend off our Beasts and Soldiers, he drew Screeching Sliver—which did precisely bupkiss to help his beatdown strategy. And when he was on the ropes, he drew Shadow Sliver, which made it so that he couldn't block at all.

In other words, his amazing backup plans actually hampered his actual plans, hamstringing him before he got a chance to swing with big men. He got so terrified of losing the beatdown battle that he put in cards that weakened his main strategy.

Just like a good marriage, getting hooked up to a good strategy means you have to commit. The blunt truth is that your deck will not be able to beat any strategy; that's just the way Magic is. Sometimes, you get paired against the wrong deck and lose.

Few decks, however, can do a 180-degree turn and make it work—and the handful of decks that have been able to do that are now legendary in the annals of Magic. You're just starting out, so don't try to do something that complex yet. Don't have a backup scheme.

If you have a deck designed to beat people's faces in, make sure that every card helps you to smash face. Don't think that your beatdown deck will morph into a burn deck or a millstone deck or a countering deck; if you're worried about getting into a creature stall that you can't win, put in something that furthers your beatdown strategy and gets around the problem you're facing, like Overrun or Baru, Fist of Krosa. Or if you're worried about counterspells, hey, try playing some uncounterable creatures!

But don't try to make your deck do two things at once. Have one plan, and make that plan as bulletproof as you can. You'll build better decks.

Misperception: "This Will Just Happen!"
The Error: It probably won't.

Nacatl War-Pride and Stonewood InvocationWhen I asked for entries in the "Nacatl War-Pride Reader Challenge," I said that the problem with Nacatl is that he gets killed too easily when multiple opponents gang up on him. And a lot of readers have, thus far, submitted something like this:

"You can protect Nacatl War-Pride with Stonewood Invocation!"

Unfortunately, that's a broadcast straight from Theoryland. And in Theoryland, I'm not only Magic's Player of the Year, but I have Donald Trump chained in my basement writing me checks while Catherine Zeta-Jones and Angelina Jolie serve me grapes.

In theory, everything works.

While it's true that you can protect your Nactal with an Invocation, I'm betting it won't happen that much in practice. Let's look at what happens when you play Nacatl War-Pride with the intent of protecting it with Stonewood Invocation:

Scenario #1: On turn 6, you cast Nacatl War-Pride.
Someone else says "Lightning Bolt" or "Fiery Temper" and your Nacatl is gone. What happened? Well, you didn't have the mana left over to save it. Where's your Stonewood Invocation now, Flanders?

Scenario #2: On turn 10, you cast Nacatl War-Pride with Stonewood Invocation backup....
Wait a minute here; this is a pretty darned good scenario. You've gotten to ten lands, and nobody's killed you, and a single Nacatl War-Pride's still enough to win? Getting to ten lands, if you're new to the game, is generally a sign of a very slow game—either you're playing with guys who take a while, or there's a big creature standoff that Nactal may not solve.

But okay. Let's assume. You're at ten lands. You play Nacatl, someone plays Terminate, and you Stonewood Invoke! A winnar are you!

Then, then next turn, once the Invocation shield falls off, someone else Disintegrates your Nacatl. Whoops. Maybe you needed fourteen land and two Stonewood Invocations, each handed to you by a grateful Scarlett Johansson on a silver tray.

The lesson I'm trying to get across here is that as players, we tend to imagine the perfect scenario—that one, shining moment when the cards will come together as one to solve our woes, bear us to victory, and give us a hot stone massage when the game is over. But those scenarios usually involve a whole bunch of things coming together that will never come to pass.

As another example—this one from real life—a friend of mine was discussing his deck. It was yet another Slivers deck that involved the rather clunky combo of Meekstone, Might Sliver, Capsize, and Telekinetic Sliver.

Meekstone, Capsize, Telekinetic Sliver

The goal was that he'd tap everyone down with the Telekinetic Sliver, keep everything tapped down with Meekstone, and then Capsize (with buyback) his Meekstone at the beginning of every turn to make sure that he'd be on top. (The Might Slivers were to ensure he could beat down when he had tapped everyone else out.)

If you've been playing for any amount of time, you won't be surprised to find that this deck never won. But my friend, who'd only just gotten back into Magic after a seven-year absence, was shocked to find out that we thought his idea was not good.

"Why?" he asked. "It'd win when it fired, right?"

"Yeah," we shrugged, "But think about everything that has to go right to make it win! First, you have to get an army of slivers out, at least five of them...."


"That's not a given. Then you have to ramp up to at least eight mana to Capsize with buyback and re-play Meekstone during your main phase—again, not a given by any means. Then you have to guarantee that nobody counters your Capsize, because if they do then that fizzles and you're left with a bunch of guys that have been locked down by your own effect...."

"Okay, yeah, that happened, but that was...."

"Precisely what you should expect to happen. And finally, there's the fact that you have to draw all of these cards at the same time to make it work! You don't draw a Telekinetic Sliver or a Capsize or a Meekstone and your whole strategy falls apart like a house of cards."

He didn't get it. What he was looking at was a bunch of things that should happen. What we were looking at were all the things that had to happen. And as experienced players, we knew that "should" is never a word you should rely on in a game.

When you're designing a deck, you fall in love with the "What if?". As in, "Wouldn't it be cool if all of this happened at once?" But experienced players know that Magic is all about odds—and before you start falling in love with your imaginary scenario, let's ask some vital questions:

  • What if you don't draw all the cards you need to make this miracle scenario happen?
  • What if someone destroys one of your cards in response?
  • What if you don't have the land necessary to make this happen? (Hint: There's a reason even good multiplayer decks don't assume they're going to get to eight mana, unless they're running the UrzaTron or heavy mana acceleration.)
  • What if someone plays a card that shuts your strategy down, like Pithing Needle or Teferi's Moat or Imperial Mask?

Some of those, you can help. If you're playing a deck that needs cards, well, there are Tutors and Pacts galore to help you fetch the cards you need when you need them. You can protect your cards with counterspells and enchantments like Privileged Position. You can accelerate into more land, and you can anticipate common cards that might shut your strategy down cold and put in reactive cards like Naturalize.

But if your entire deck collapses if merely one of these situations comes to pass, then you have a bad deck. Go back to the drawing board and find something a little more resilient—something where you can function if only one or two of the cards are on the table at any given time.

You do not want to envision the best-case scenario. You want a near worst-case scenario, and what do you do when you have a lone Telekinetic Sliver and nothing else, or a Meekstone on the board against a bunch of Goblins who don't care?

Remember, the deadliest combos in Magic relied on two cards. Three cards are doable. Four-card combos are getting almost unworkable, and five cards are more are the kind of combo you pull off once a year and then tell all of your friends because it never happened again.

Misperception: "I'll just protect it with Counterspells."
Error: You don't have enough Counterspells.

Darksteel Colossus with a Counterspell, Overrun with a Dissipate, Disintegrate with nothing

This is a slight variant on the last misperception, but Counterspells are not a panacea. Remember the previous example, and now let's ask:

  • What happens if you don't have the Counterspell when you need it?
  • What happens if you don't have the mana to play the Counterspell when you need to?
  • What happens if two or more players gang up on you and you don't have enough Counterspells or mana?

Plus, there's the fact that Counterspells are inherently reactive cards. Like black kill spells, you won't win with Counterspells alone; you need to have cards devoted to doing damage to people's heads, and every slot you have devoted to Counterspells is a slot that's not doing damage.

Don't get me wrong; Counterspells, when used properly, are an absolute bear. But they have to be used properly, and putting Counterspells in the service of some botched four-card combo will lead to more ruin.

Misperception: "I'll play twenty land."
Error: Never underestimate the importance of a mana base.

I'm not going to reinvent the wheel here. Jay Moldenhauer-Salazar once wrote an article that I've been recommending for the better part of a decade: Mmmmmmmmmana...Five Rules For Avoiding Mana-Screw. This explains how to build good mana bases, and every last one of you should read it.

And here, one bonus misperception that has nothing to do with deckbuilding, but will probably help 90% of you:

Misperception: "I'll keep this seven-card hand with two lands or less in it."
Error: Don't.

That's a little more of a generality, but it's a pretty decent rule to live by until you know when to break it.

Let's not talk about breaking, though. It reminds me of teeth. Ow.

Latest Serious Fun Articles


January 5, 2016

Hedron Alignment by, Bruce Richard

When I first looked at my preview card, I couldn't really wrap my brain around it. The card does so much that I wasn't really understanding its value. Kind of a "forest for the trees" thi...

Learn More


December 29, 2015

Eternal Pilgrim by, Bruce Richard

When religious belief turns into religious fervor, things get problematic—particularly on Zendikar. When the Eldrazi were originally imprisoned, stories were told to ensure no one would t...

Learn More



Serious Fun Archive

Consult the archives for more articles!

See All