Top to Bottom

Posted in Serious Fun on June 16, 2009

By Kelly Digges

Welcome to Top-Down Week! This week is all about starting with a broad concept—the "top"—and working your way "down" to the details. (When you start with the details, it's called "bottom up." Is Bottom-Up Week on the way? Time will tell.)

Mark and Ken have already written about how the concept of "top down" applies to card design, but it can also be applied to other things—like, say, deck building.

I usually build decks from the top down, starting with an overall idea of what I want the deck to be—a Demon / Ogre deck, an enchantment deck, etc. Settling on a theme helps me decide what cards to include and what cards to leave out. Battlegrace Angel is a fine card—it just doesn't go in my Sigil of the Empty Throne deck, even though that deck uses white mana.

Other times, I build decks from the bottom up, starting with some pool of cards—generally, the cards I have—and figuring out what sort of deck(s) I can build using those cards. My friend Laura's two-color decks are a good example. She started with all of the cards she could find that were exactly two colors, and pursued whatever themes emerged for each of the ten decks—tokens for green-white, hellbent for red-black, etc.

Top-down deck design is my preference, which is one of the reasons I really like Elder Dragon Highlander, or EDH. EDH, if you're just tuning in, is a multiplayer format I first wrote about here. The full rules are in that article, so I won't repeat them, but the basic rundown is that you play a 100-card Singleton deck including one "general," a legendary creature that determines your deck's colors and is always* available for you to play, and you start with 40 life. There's a very similar format called Commander Singleton FFA on Magic Online.

*Not valid in all game states. Some restrictions may apply. See full format rules for details.

Generally, when setting out to build an EDH deck, I have started by choosing a general I know I'll enjoy building around. I choose my generals for the strategies they suggest rather than just for their colors; a Momir Vig, Simic Visionary deck would look very different from an Experiment Kraj deck, and it always makes me sad to see a Phelddagrif or Sliver Queen sitting forlornly on the sidelines during an EDH game because its deck-builder only ever loved it for its colors.

In other words, I design EDH decks from the top down. Today, I want to walk you through building one such deck, and also show you the opposite approach with a deck that I built, almost accidentally, from the bottom up.

    Mist One

I can't be the only one whose jaw dropped on reading Uril, the Miststalker. My friends, we have come a long way from Rabid Wombat.

I played EDH after hours at Pro Tour–Honolulu with some judges—

—OK, quick aside, because this game was awesome. We played a six-player game in which two players, believe it or not, lost due to decking. This doesn't happen often in a format where a hundred-card deck is mandatory. But one of the players, having been told that "it's not possible to win with milling in EDH," took it as a challenge, and built a Szadek, Lord of Secrets deck that does exactly that. His chief weapon was Mesmeric Orb, a card that depletes even hundred-card libraries with astonishing speed.

The best part of the game was when Gavin, playing a really cool Nath of the Gilt-Leaf deck with lots of discard effects, played Cabal Conditioning, targeting all five of his opponents, with Nath in play. Away went our hands, and in came twenty Elf Warrior tokens for Gavin (not everybody had five cards in hand). Another half-trip around the table, however, a Pernicious Deed hit the table to keep those tokens in check if need be. Then, the Szadek player (whose name, with apologies to him, escapes me) untapped and dumped six or eight cards into his graveyard for Mesmeric Orb. One of those happened to be Extractor Demon. One unearth and a Deed for zero later, Gavin's tokens were all gone, and as the target of all twenty Extractor Demon triggers, he dumped the top forty cards of his library into his graveyard.

Anyway, back to the point. This was the biggest gathering of EDH players I'd ever seen, and I noticed that a few generals were more popular than others. Everybody seemed to have a Rith, the Awakener deck, and Sharuum the Hegemon decks are a well-known enough archetype that I got killed by Phage the Untouchable before I could do anything tricky. (Phage, by the way, makes a very poor general.)

Yet with all these EDH players, I did not see a single Uril, the Miststalker deck. That couldn't be right! I had already thought about a Uril EDH deck in general terms (heh), but I returned home determined to make one. (When I declared this intention, one co-worker responded, "I have a Uril deck!" I ignored him.)

    Direct Build

To start my quest, I spent some quality time with the Gatherer database. A very handy trick I've found for EDH in particular is to go to the advanced search option and use the "not" operator for the colors your general lacks. In Uril's case, I searched for cards that were not blue and not black. That let me find cards that were red, green, white, or colorless. You can still get a few false hits this way because of the way EDH does colors; Bringer of the Red Dawn, for example, isn't legal in a Uril deck because it has blue and black mana symbols on it.

In the case of Uril, naturally I started my search by looking for Auras. When I noticed a lot of false hits on Auras with enchant lands like Barbed Field, I went back to the advanced search page, hit "load previous" on the right side of the screen (another handy trick), and added NOT "enchant land" to my search. Much better.

I could just as easily have done this by going through my collection and pulling out Auras, but I like to start with Gatherer to get some ideas. I wrote down all the Auras that caught my eye, putting stars next to the ones that seemed most promising. I knew I would want all three Shadowmoor block "god Auras" that would fit—Runes of the Deus, Scourge of the Nobilis, and especially Shield of the Oversoul, which lets Uril live through Wrath of God. Rancor, Pollenbright Wings, and Epic Proportions would make the cut, and I knew I wouldn't be able to resist including Daybreak Coronet. Flickerform was another must-have, for its ability to protect Uril from Wrath of God and other sweeper effects.

After Auras, I looked for cards that play well with Auras, uncovering a few gems such as Three Dreams and Retether. Retether reminded me of the older card it's based on, Replenish, which I happen to have in foil from long ago. That, in turn, made me realize that I could include an enchantment subtheme, since the deck was going to have a lot of enchantments in it anyway. That meant cards like Sigil of the Empty Throne and Mesa Enchantress. There are lots of Enchantress cards, including a few I didn't know existed, nearly all of which let me draw cards.

The next question was what other creatures to include. Now, the rules for EDH mean that I can cast Uril as soon as I have five mana; if he dies, he's exiled and I can play him again for more. Uril is immune to spot removal, and I have ways to make him indestructible, so there are very few things that can deal with him. Things that force me to sacrifice him would do it, as would Final Judgment (though I could cast him again), Evacuation, and the dreaded Hallowed Burial, which would lock him away on the bottom of my library. So I could actually make this deck without any other creatures at all!

I decided that I did want to have some other creatures in the deck, although at some point I might try the version with just Uril (and support staff like the Enchantresses). Uril is such an awesome Aura carrier because opponents can't target him, so I looked up similar cards, finding Silhana Ledgewalker, Drove of Elves, Plated Slagwurm, and Troll Ascetic. They could carry Auras if Uril was unavailable for whatever reason. Beyond that, I just went with big creatures that were hard to kill or fun to put Auras on for some other reason, including Spearbreaker Behemoth, Thornling, Meglonoth, and Brion Stoutarm. I even worked in a couple of enchantments that could turn into creatures in the form of Hidden Guerillas and Opal Archangel.

I rounded out the deck with cards that seemed awesome in combination with a giant creature who doesn't die easily, such as Soul's Majesty, Wall of Reverence, Magus of the Arena, and Mayael's Aria. Whee!

After combing Gatherer and my collection, I piled all the cards together, made the tough cuts, and put together a deck that I'm very happy with.

Uril, the Miststalker

Download Arena Decklist
Planeswalker (1)
1 Elspeth, Knight-Errant
99 Cards

In a couple of test games against a friend's Mayael the Anima deck, I consistently killed her in one or two hits. Players start with 40 life in EDH, but 21 points of combat damage from one general kills you no matter your life total. I've never used a general who could realistically get that done before, but when Uril suits up with Runes of the Deus and Daybreak Coronet, you're taking 28 on the chin.

    Bottoms Up

Beginning an EDH deck design with a general in mind lets you really focus on making the most of that general's abilities. But I've also found myself occasionally thinking that a particular sort of deck would be fun to build, with no general in mind. A deck like that could easily be a 60-card deck, but if there are lots of cards that could go in it, I'll sometimes make an EDH deck instead. It's weird to me to start building an EDH deck with no idea who the general is, but sometimes it works.

A couple months ago, I had the sudden urge to build a multiplayer deck that used target-changing cards like Swerve to mess with the whole table. I would turn their own spells against them. That didn't sound like a whole deck, so I quickly expanded to copy effects like Twincast. That still didn't give me any creatures, so I hit upon the idea of copying and stealing opponents' creatures. The deck would do nothing on its own; instead, it would pick and choose from the best creatures and spells at the table.

Since all of these things except copying creatures have bounced back and forth between blue and red over the years, obviously this would be a blue-red deck. With the core concept slotting pretty firmly into two colors—and enemy colors at that—the options were few, and the choice, to me, obvious. Who's blue and red, one of my favorite legendary creatures ever, a perfect fit flavor-wise for a deck that turns others' weapons against them, and, oh yeah, a Dragon? Why, Niv-Mizzet, the Firemind, of course!

Enter the opposition.

While the majority of copying and control- and target-changing effects have been blue and red, there are a smattering across the rest of the color pie: Yavimaya's Embrace, Enslave, Evangelize. If I wanted to include all of them, I'd need a five-color general (Sliver Overlord, perhaps?). That didn't seem right, though—the deck wanted to be mostly blue and red in any case, and I felt like a five-color general would water down its identity. That meant I was going three colors at most.

The other choice I settled on was Intet, the Dreamer. She (yes, she) is equally legendary and equally dragony, and she brings green to the table, giving me access to Cytoshape, Spitting Image, and some other neat stuff. She even fits with my plan mechanically, because she might remove instants from the game with her ability that I could then play for free, ensuring that I could carry on my shenanigans even while tapped out.

In the end, I started searching Gatherer and building the deck without having made the decision. I had a side pile of green cards started, but since most of the deck was blue and/or red, I could assemble it without knowing who the general was. Totally different from my Uril deck!

While I was laying everything out, I found the Control Magic–type effects taking the forefront, which I didn't expect. There are a lot more creatures at the typical table than there are targeted spells, and there are a lot more cards that steal or copy creatures than there are cards that redirect or copy spells.

As I searched for more "gain control" effects, I stumbled on one that I had somehow missed in my initial searching: Nicol Bolas, Planeswalker.

Of course! Who's blue and red (and black), one of Magic's first legends, a perfect fit flavor-wise for a deck that turns others' weapons against them, and, oh yeah, a Dragon? Bolas!

Now, by the official EDH rules, Nicol Bolas, Planeswalker can't be my general, although some groups allow planeswalkers. But Nicol Bolas, one of the original Elder Dragons for whom the format is named, absolutely is a legal general, and while the card doesn't have much to do with my deck's theme mechanically, the concept is a perfect fit for the character's far-thinking, manipulative nature. The deck would remain mostly blue and red, but now I could include some of the black options I'd been looking at, like Enslave, Beacon of Unrest, and of course Slave of Bolas.

If I don't end up liking Bolas as the general, I can swap out a small number of cards (and a chunk of the mana base) to turn it into a Niv-Mizzet, the Firemind deck or an Intet, the Dreamer deck. My Uril deck, by contrast, would make a terrible Rith, the Awakener deck, for example.

Here's my Nicol Bolas deck:

Nicol Bolas

Download Arena Decklist

Is this deck any good? Not a clue. But I will certainly enjoy steepling my fingers and declaring that this is all unfolding according to my master plan.


There you have it: two very different decks made by very different processes. Although I've been talking about EDH, this same top down / bottom up question can apply to other decks. Do you like to start with a broad concept, or do you start with a few neat interactions or cool rares and see what comes? If you play EDH, do you start by picking a general, or do other factors influence the deck, with the general being a secondary concern? Let me know!

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