D.I.Y.: The (Not So) Basics
By happybounce on March 8th, 2007 · Filed in Standard (Type 2) · Comments not available just now
D.I.Y.: The (Not So) Basics
Building your own Magic deck isn't easy.
That should be amended, I guess, because pretty much anyone can toss 60 cards together or add some rares to a preconstructed deck. But crafting your own home brewed deck that actually does decent and is still fun to play? Well, that's not always easy.
Grabbing a deck offline or tweaking someone else's pile of cardboard is way less work, and there is no shame in that whatsoever. Some people just like playing the game and don't want to spend hours agonizing over what to add or subtract from their deck, and I respect the hell out of that. Yet for me (and a whole bunch of you, I suspect) the fun is in crafting something that is uniquely my own.
And that isn't easy.
After an extended hiatus I hopped back into the game around Coldsnap, and for the first time began focusing on Constructed play. I spent a semester learning what to do and not to do - four solid months of failed creations, successful attempts, and at least two decks that are so bad I won't even write about them.
See, it's not just that I love building decks; I have a compulsion, a sickness, an uncontrollable need to do it. And every time I build a deck (which is multiple times a week), I can't just leave it be. I have to play test it, improve it, and throw it at the competition. Yes, I need a girlfriend, and I am currently accepting resumes.
What this means is that every week I take a different deck to Friday Night Magic and compete against a store full of pretty good Magic players. The latest popular decks are always there, from Dragonstorm to B/W Tron to G/U Beats- and I take my wacky weird creations and face my foes in honorable combat. Normally I do pretty well, but the most valuable thing I take away from those tournaments is experience.
A Bold Statement (From a Bold Man)
I would argue that original deck construction is the single most complex task associated with the game of Magic.
Think that over for a minute- I know how bold it was.
Some things in Magic cannot be taught. You can't teach skill, but you can teach the rules. You can't teach innovation, but you can teach smart plays. You can't teach play anticipation, but you can teach how to sideboard.
You can't teach someone how to build decks. The closest you can get is teaching them how to build a deck, and that is far from the same thing (somewhere in there is a parable about fish, or fishing, or teaching to fish, but I can't bring myself to do it).
Once again, I should amend myself. I don't think that deck building can be "taught" using traditional methods. Rather, parts of the deck building process can be taught. Deck building isn't just about mana curves, card synergy, and ratios; the game isn't a series of ever-increasingly complicated math problems. It's about experimentation, unusual ideas, and unexpected combinations. It's about taking risks, expanding your play style, and trying things outside your comfort zone. These concepts cannot be taught in the abstract. Instead, it is necessary to have concrete examples for each lesson in deck building that needs to be learned.
Every deck has a story, and every deck has a lesson. If you read enough stories and learn enough lessons, you become a better deckbuilder.
The Basic Things That You Already Know
So you want to build your own deck. That's great, but first you need an idea of what it's going up against. No deck operates in a vacuum, so knowing what you're going to be facing is of paramount importance. To do this you'll need an idea of the local metagame. See, there are lots of different metagames out there, but the local metagame is the single most important of all of them.
I'm just full of bold statements today.
The local metagame is the most important because it creates the professional metagame. That's right - the pro metagame is a product of what people are playing. This could easily turn into a chicken/egg philosophical discussion, but the point I'm getting at is that way more people play at Friday Night Magic than at pro tournaments. Thus, what they play affects what people expect to play, and affects what will be played by most people at the pro level. Sure, there's always some breakout deck that does amazing, but how many of those are there compared to the number of Boros or Solar Flare decks?
So: you need to know what you're going up against, even if you choose not to worry about it. Lord knows I make plenty of decks with a glance at the local metagame followed by a casual shrug - but at the very least, you need it to sideboard (which shouldn't be thought of as a separate entity from your deck, but rather a fifteen card pile of alternate deck possibilities).
Past that, deck building gets hazy; somewhere between "Hey, make sure you have enough mana!" and "Hey, I just made the latest Pro Tour breakout deck!" things get a little muddled up. It is this murky quagmire that I choose to explore - the ephemeral, the abstract, and the philosophical aspects of deck building.
Don't Be A Fool, Stay In School
Like I said before, every deck has a story and a lesson. Most of the time, I didn't even know a lesson existed until my deck taught it to me, but that's part of the fun, right? Everyone loves learning stuff.
God knows I do. That's why I'm in my seventh year of college - I just love learning that much.
Since I've been learning so much these last few months, I've decided to start sharing my keen insight with none other than you, gentle reader. I ascertain something new every time I build, test and run a deck, and not sharing this would be criminal!
To fully understand my examples, it's necessary to understand my usual play style. I like big complicated effects: if the table has lots of dice, tokens, and creatures, I'm pretty happy. The need to protect all my crap means I lean towards a control style of play. I really like creatures, and my love of beating face predicates me towards Green (and sometimes White); however, lately I've been using a lot of Black and even (gasp!) some Red.
Like I said, every deck has a lesson. Some are tucked away, hidden beneath hours of game play and strategy evaluation; these are the lessons that shed light on a previously unknown aspect of the game, be it deck construction, card synergy, or playing styles. Lessons like these are almost tangible evidence of one's improvement at the game, each one a succulent morsel of hard-earned and valuable information. Sometimes they gently whisper "Card advantage is more than just draw spells", or maybe "Look at his face when he draws that six land mulligan", or even "Remember who plays aggressive and who plays cautious".
Other decks have lessons that are fast, hard and dirty, beating you in the face with a gigantic obvious message such as "Don't forget to do stuff at the end of his turn, stupid!" or "Hey jackass! Make sure you have enough lands, jackass!"
This week is just about the most basic lessons in deck construction - the things you need to keep in mind during the very first stages of creation. Yes, mana cost and land count are two of the big ones, but there are other very basic things to consider during the earliest stages of deck design.
The (Not So) Divine Inspiration
It was Thursday night and I'd had an exceptionally busy week of drinking. As I finally came out of my twelve-hour long hangover I realized that not only did I not have an original deck put together for FNM, I didn't have any deck put together at all! Disaster!
I went right to my rare folder and opened it up to a random page, and nine stacks of red goodness promptly jumped out at me. Why doesn't anyone run Wheel of Fate, I wondered? Or Jaya Ballard, Task Mage? I didn't know what was happening yet, but they were going in the pile!
Mono-Red was out of the question (because, seriously, without Planar Chaos mono-Red is a joke), and since people keep unloading Blood Crypts on me I decided to go B/R. What goes well with reusable discard and a badass draw engine?
Oh yeah, madness.
Does anyone else have a mechanic they really love for no apparent reason? A big one of mine is madness. Also, snow decks.
What about . . . snow-madness???
Anyways, I just plain loves me some madness. I don't even like Black that much, but the idea of getting something for cheap (or free!) if I simply discard a card is downright sexy. However, getting the right ratio of discard/madness cards in a deck (I said ratios weren't everything, not that they didn't matter at all) is a bigger pain than trying to sign up for a prerelease flight. I've made ‘em all before - U/B madness, R/B madness, BBB madness, WKRZ madness - if you can name it, I tried it, and I screwed it up. I decided that this time the madness deck would work. Red is perfect! Some Lightning Axes, a couple Jayas, four Wheel of Fate because I keep getting them in packs (and they give you seven cards, duh), and four Fiery Tempers got me off to a great start. For the big kill, two Bogardan Hellkites and three Stronghold Overseers would make guest appearances courtesy of Dread Return. I knew the deck would do great!
Then it didn't.
It was bad. I mean, it wasn't "I won't write about it" bad, but the deck didn't do anything until turn three or four short of cast a signet. Whoops! I was so excited about reanimation and madness effects that I forgot to put in stuff for the early game. Turns out casting a spell that makes me discard and then paying the madness cost is about the same as just casting the madness spell.
Quick Lesson #1: I know you're excited about the neat mechanic, but don't let the rest of the deck suffer. Maybe I'm the only one that does this, but I bet I'm not, and it's the reason why before I playtest a deck out I spend an hour or so playing against myself. A dry run, if you will.
But the first thing to know about making a deck is that the idea for the deck can sometimes get out of control and make it less effective. Oh, and remember to include a kill mechanism. I ran at least one really great deck at FNM only to realize that while I could lock down the board with G/W snow goodness (and not a Glare of Subdual in sight) I need to be able to deal 20 damage as well. Or deck ‘em for 53 cards. Or get 10 poison counters in there.
You get the point.
After I realized how bad it was, the trick became finding stuff for the early game that would be useful mid-to-late game. I wanted utility creatures that would help the deck's reanimation/madness mechanics. Lots of options came up, including Pit Keeper and Drekavac, but none of them had the on-the-board utility I was looking for. Then it hit me:
Slivers. That's right, slivers. And not just any slivers - black slivers!
Quick Lesson #2: Know your Magic prejudices and be willing to drop them. I think slivers are hella lame; they're just bad enough to miss constructed play but just good enough to ruin a good casual game. I held the black slivers in particular contempt because, well, I thought they sucked. Most of the time they do, but when I stopped looking at the cards as slivers and started looking at them as, say, a 1/1 for B that can make everyone discard a card, they became way better. The neat thing about the common black slivers is that they don't need anything else to be a neat little utility creature. So Mindstab Sliver would go in the deck, as well as Basal Sliver (because I miss thrulls). Oh, I know thrulls are still around, but they just don't make ‘em like they used to!
Get it? They just don't - oh, never mind.
I wanted so badly to put Plague Sliver in then drop all the boys on the board for their sac effects! Common sense prevailed (for once), so I put in Sedge Sliver instead. By the way: Sedge Troll is still a good card. Hedge Troll is an even better card, but that's neither here nor there.
The slivers (and some important deck changes, like a reduction in the madness to discard ratio) made the deck about a hundred times better, and I came away with something that looked a little like this:
Why the name? Well, John #1 and I tossed a bunch of Planar Chaos draft commons into decks we'd already made after the prerelease and found out Simian Spirit Guide is totally awesome. Also, it sounds better than "My Black/Red Madness/Reanimation Deck". That's a mouthful.
How I Rolled
Before I knew it Friday was on my behind like a bad case of chair rash, and I didn't even have a sideboard! I threw some crap together that looked like a pile of Voids and Icy Manipulators, then bummed a ride to the card shop.
Match One: Laura, with B/W Discard
Game One: Playing madness against discard is awesome!
Game Two: Playing madness against discard sucks.
Game Three: Playing madness against discard is awesome! Wait, now it sucks. Hey, now it's awesome again! Whoops, I lost the match.
Turns out I only had like three and a half madness cards in the deck, because madness is "clunky". Stupid ratios! Also: where was my land?
Matches: 0-1 Games: 1-2
Match Two: David, with White Weenie
Game One: Ow, my face!
Game Two: Active Jaya Ballad wins games.
Game Three: One swamp and a bounce land take me to victory! Well, that and a Mindstab Sliver, a Basal Sliver, and a Stronghold Overseer. And a total lack of anything that resembled a Temporal Isolation for David. Again: where was my land?
Matches: 1-1 Games: 3-3
The "not enough land" thing was starting to become a theme, and I frequently didn't have a reliable, reusable discard engine (because Jaya dies, like, a whole bunch). Too late for that now!
Match Three: Eric, with B/R goodstuff/hellbent
Game One: Eric hadn't played magic in about a year and a half, and so in spite of a clever deck (of his own design!) and some friendly help I still beat him. With three lands in play.
Game Two: One game was not enough practice, and Eric lost to the unstoppable force of a Bogardan Hellkite. Still, he used his cards without deck protectors, and you gotta give the man props for that. No pansy pile shuffling for him!
Matches: 2-1 Games: 5-3
Match Four: Dustin, with U/R Snow
Game One: Draw, go, counter. Draw, go, counter. Draw, go, counter. Draw, go, counter. Draw, go, counter. Draw, go, counter. Draw, go, counter. Draw, go, counter. Stuffy Doll, Skred, I lose.
Game Two: Dustin mulls to five and I come out swinging with a, uh, Sedge Sliver. And two Mindstab Slivers. Sedge Sliver for the win! A bad case of land screw didn't help his cause.
Game Three: This was the closest, most hardly fought game of the whole night. An early Mindstab Sliver got out and beat all the way to 9 before a Stuffy Doll dropped in. Dustin was drawing like crazy for a Skred, and I was holding a Demonfire with nine mana on the board and praying to topdeck a land. This went on for a while. Finally we went to time, and on turn four he pulled a Skred and killed me. I peeked at what would have been my fifth turn draw - a Mountain.
Matches: 2-2 Games: 6-5
Quick Lesson #3: PUT ENOUGH LAND IN THE DAMN DECK. I know better than this! Someone should beat me with a box of Homelands for what I did to this poor pile of cards. 24 lands would have been pretty much perfect, and an extra Rix Maadi, Dungeon Palace would have provided the perfect discard engine I needed. There were many, many times I wanted so badly to drop a Hellkite into the graveyard but some jerk killed Jaya before I got a chance. The deck has some potential - I put it together hung over and went 50/50, for crying out loud - but I hamstrung it right from the start. Even with two signets and four Basal Slivers, 22 lands just isn't enough for this deck. I knew better, but I did it anyways.
The Big Lesson: Sometimes the simplest lessons or rules are the ones that are the easiest to forget. I'd been putting between twenty-three and twenty-five lands in a deck for months, but for some reason I thought I could make this one work. One or two lands in a deck can really make a difference - a simple, easy lesson that I forgot and had to (painfully) re-learn. Seriously, I think that the deck would have ran smoother not doing anything until turn 4 (well, maybe not) or with a stupid amount of madness, provided that I had enough land to make it tick.
Oh, and make your deck with plenty of time to spare. If you toss it together 24 hours before a tournament, you might end up, say, not putting enough lands in or forgetting to include a kill mechanism.
I guess having at least one deck already built helps this particular problem.
Making it Better
But wait, there's more! My deck needed some serious work, but I was pretty tired of looking at Slivers and Overlords (I was not, however, tired of looking at Jaya). My buddies Dave and John #1 thought they could make the deck better, so I let them take a crack at it and this is what they came up with:
Bonus Lesson: Use other people's input or ideas. I'd gotten it into my head that the deck had to be a certain way, and as a result I make an inferior deck. Dave and John #1 had a fresh perspective on it and made it significantly better.
There's some neat PC stuff that could go in as well, so here's the post-Planar Chaos version:
Simian Spirit Guide is funny, but I'm worried about Jaya. I'm pretty sure that smelling burnt hair is one of the signs of a brain tumor. Or am I making that up? I think Billy Bob Thorton said it in Bandits, which means it must be true because that man is incapable of lying.
He wouldn't lie to me, would he?
By happybounce on March 8th, 2007 · Filed in Standard (Type 2) · Comments not available just now