When Decks Go Bad

Posted in Serious Fun on June 18, 2002

By Anthony Alongi

Have you ever tried to imagine the deck that could use Aven Shrine? Nay, not just use it, but welcome it?

Pale Moon

Have you grown frustrated at busting open stinkbombs like Pale Moon and Chance Encounter?

Have you found yourself missing your Magic youth, when you didn't know what cards were inefficient and your five-color schemes had absolutely no "domain" or mana-fixing cards?

Then do I have the format for you.

Bad decks are an essential part of the casual Magic culture. By the time your first-year anniversary of Magic comes around, you've probably tried it at least once. (Speaking of anniversaries, can anyone else remember the exact date of your marriage to Magic? And did I just say that aloud, where my wife could read it?) There are lots of ways to go about this; I'll share the format our own group tried most recently.


Making a bad deck format that everyone can enjoy for more than a single game takes a bit of work. If you just leave everything loose, you'll get decks with all basic land, or creatures that you have no statistical chance of playing, etc. And of course, you might have someone show up with a deck they "think" is bad but is really good enough to beat everyone. There's little point to doing that. Here are the five cardinal rules of bad decks:

1) You must supply a mana base capable of casting the spells within.

I recommend exactly 24 lands in an exactly 60-card deck, with five of each basic land type and then any four mana-producing non-basic lands. If a deck designer wants to include Rushwood Elemental, one of those four non-basics needs to be capable of making green. (Of course, it doesn't have to be good at it.)

On a related note, I would set a cap on the converted mana cost of the spells at six. That way, you won't end up with a bunch of decks where nothing happens for twelve turns. It's not no action you want from this format... it's bad action.

2) You must supply a path to victory.

You can get intricate and allow milling or burn decks; but I think the simplest way to achieve this end is to mandate a minimum of 15 creatures, with combined power of no less than 40.

Security Detail

Token generators are fine, but only count toward the 40-power minimum for the first token they generate. (So Call of the Herd = 3, not 6; and Security Detail = 1, not infinity. Nice try.) Asterisks (as on Cantivore) count as zeros.

No walls allowed. Steel-Leaf Paladin is restricted (i.e., you get one gating creature per deck).

3) Every card must have a statistically significant chance of having an effect.

If you put a Covetous Dragon in the deck, you must also include at least one artifact. If you put in an Endless Wurm, you must also include at least one enchantment. If you use a Goblin Grenade, take the time to throw in a (bad) goblin.

Of course, there are ways around those (or any other) examples. With Unnatural Selection in the deck, any creature could be a goblin for the Grenade. With Soul Sculptor, any creature could be an enchantment. The more intricate and far-fetched the possibility, the better...just as long as it isn't zero.

Since Walls are not allowed, cards like Glyph of Doom are also not allowed, since there's no chance of them having an effect. Chaoslace is just fine, though... it will, after all, turn something red.

4) Each color must contribute something to the cause.

At least three creatures in each color. And at least one removal spell in each color. ("Removal" can be defined pretty broadly. Polymorph, Superior Numbers, Winnow, Curfew, Liberate, and Wing Snare would all fit fine in my book. Black and red have plenty of more obvious ones to choose from.)

Speaking of colors, it's your call, but I wouldn't encourage color hosers, for the same reason that I don't encourage them in most formats: you don't need them to have a good time.

Artifacts are certainly allowed, but not at the expense of any of the colors meeting their minimums.

5) Only one copy of each card that isn't a basic land.

More commonly known as "Highlander" format ("there can be only one", from the movie), this rule does two things: it forces people to find more bad cards, and it makes decks less consistent. Both ends serve the cause.

So how might one go about building a bad deck?


Quick dog story, for those of you with enough self-respect to avoid cats (no, don't email me; I had to live with two of the beasts growing up). Some dog training experts will tell you that to keep a puppy away from coveted things, you should punish...not the dog, but the object. ("Bad sock! Bad, bad sock!") You do this loudly, and in the dog's presence, and the dog in theory decides that the object is merely undesirable, instead of forbidden fruit. This is theory, folks. You don't get a money-back guarantee from the book company if the experts are wrong. But what the heck -- give 'er a whirl.

Scent of Brine

My dog Turquoise, a German Shepherd-Border Collie mix who's way better and cooler than whatever dog you have, made a go at my Magic collection once. I was sitting right there, fortunately; and I wasted no time in picking up the card she had sniffed (Scent of Brine, sitting at the back corner of my open Urza's block box) and chastising the card with a vengeance. As I yelled at the card, I read it over and over again, getting more and more furious each time. That reveal cycle just rubbed me wrong, I don't mind telling you. And I didn't mind telling the dog, either.

My dog is terrified of my Magic cards, now. She'll eat a torn card sleeve if you leave it in the trash on top of a Milky Way wrapper, but that's about it.

So when I build a bad deck, I get into dog-training mode. I flip through my collection and seek out the stuff that makes me foam at the mouth.

Come, on folks, sing it with me, you know the words:

Oath of Mages. Carnival of Souls. Wellspring. The Thoughtlace cycle. Sorrow's Path.

The trick to building a deck like this is, there is no trick. You just pull the cards out as you flinch and throw them together. Look, I'll make one right now:

Yawgmoth Demon


1 Covetous Dragon
1 Goblin Chirurgeon
1 Razing Snidd
1 Goblin Grenade

1 Rushwood Elemental
1 Bog Gnarr
1 Seton, Krosan Protector
1 Superior Numbers

1 Lord Magnus
1 Welkin Hawk
1 Armor Sliver
1 Winnow

1 Yawgmoth Demon
1 Black Carriage
1 Strongarm Thug
1 Forced March

1 Scrivener
1 Brine Seer
1 Warping Wurm
1 Ovinomancer

Rhystic Cave

1 Brass Herald
1 Guided Passage
1 Mudhole
1 Parallel Evolution

1 Ancient Ruins
1 Ghost Town
1 Rhystic Cave
1 Urza's Tower

4 Swamp
4 Mountain
4 Plains
4 Forest
4 Islands

Yes, there are "good" or "efficient" cards in this deck. But trust me when I say they're not likely to go too far -- and frankly, much of the fun in this format is trying to get that Brass Herald to support both the Covetous Dragon and the Yawgmoth Demon, or playing the Guided Passage so that your opponent chooses your doom for you.

Notice how blue's removal -- Ovinomancer -- is enhanced by Parallel Evolution, which will double (or possibly quadruple, on flashback!) your opponent's 0/1 sheep token count. Notice further how this encourages you to play aggressively, pouring the creatures out so that your Superior Numbers can actually inflict lethal damage on a sheep. For even more stunning synergy, play a Brine Seer, and then wait for both creatures to be active to threaten a Force Spike at will! And as a bonus, if the spell getting Spiked is a black spell, your Bog Gnarr gets bigger at the same time.


Revel in the Scrivener's ability to bring back either Winnow or Mudhole! Thrill in the patient beatdown that a growth-by-phasing 1/1 offers! Delight in the ability to search your deck for no particular reason when your overexpensive Suntail Hawk bites the dust!

I was really generous with the mana supply with for the Rushwood Elemental: either Seton, Krosan Protector or Rhystic Cave can get you that desperate fifth green mana. Godspeed.


Once you've designed your deck, it's time to test it to the limits.

At the beginning of the night, all players put their decks into the middle of the table. Distribute them randomly - no player can get his or her deck back. Play. Rotate the decks as desired, so that everyone gets a chance to experience different definitions of appalling.

For each game that a deck loses, its designer gets one point. For each game that a deck wins, its player gets one point. So, if you face your own deck and beat it, you get two points. That puts the incentives right.

At the end of the night, the player with the most points gets a prize of the host's choosing. (I recommend multiple prizes, so that second and third place get something as well. The points tend to be pretty tight.)

Believe me, you won't want to do this every week - but once every few months is good for the soul. If reader interest is high enough, I may explore other "bad deck" formats in the future, including a limited variant (ever hear of a 15th pick Cabal Patriarch?) and the best of whatever people throw at me. Write away!

Anthony may be reached at seriousfun@wizards.com.

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