Baghdad Bazaar: Improving your Topdeck



I'm sure we all remember the game where we needed to topdeck that one card to turn our losing streak around (whether it be a Damnation or an Akroma, Angel of Wrath), only to draw...a Plains. (Or, conversely, drawing that Akroma when what we really needed was our third land drop.) "C'mon topdeck!" is a phrase I see often enough online (where I usually play), and often enough from my own teammates.

"BUTZ I HAVE 40% LANDZ!" they exclaim adamantly. "AN LAST GAME I WUZ MANA-FLUDDED, LULZ!" Comments like these only make me want to track them down, find their home address, and slap them when they answer their door. Building a proper Magic decks takes far more effort than simply tossing in enough lands and then cursing "The Shuffler" when one's deck proves unreliable. If anything, you'd think getting too few lands in one game and too many in another was a clue to build a better deck.

But I digress.

In this article, I will list different ways you can avoid this issue with your own decks, making your "topdeck" as useful as often as possible. Many of these techniques should not be news to any skilled or experience deck-makers, but it should provide a resource to those newer to Magic (and a refresher for the rest of us). And, if nothing else, perhaps it will spark a new idea or two.

Quick Note: why we will NOT be discussing tutors!!! Barring funky effects like Maralen of the Mornsong, "tutor" cards are cards that replace themselves in your hand with one that's needed. This article is not about the best ways for getting the card you need into your hand. Even decks like the Teferi/Mystical Teachings list that popped up during Time Spiral still needed to draw their namesakes and enough land to cast them. Consequently, this article specifically deals with the card that you'll receive during your draw step and with how to ensure that important card is as useful as possible each turn.

There. I hope that was bolded and italicized enough.


1. The Basics.

Anyone who's built a Magic deck or two should already know the following, simple fundamentals. Still, a quick review wouldn't hurt, and there's always new readers.


I said no butts! Er, buts.

a. Stick to a 60-card limit. No buts.

By turn 3 with a 60-card deck, you'll have drawn 10 cards. That's roughly a 17% chance (1/6) to draw any particular card you'll need. With a larger deck--say 140 cards--you'll have only touched 7% of your entire deck. Not very good odds to draw that life-saving Cloudchaser Kestrel. (Obviously, the numbers change when you start using 3-of's or 4-of's, but the ratio is still the same.)

Additionally, lands are never distributed evenly in one's deck. Let's say that you've shuffled so that the top 5% of your deck after your initial draw contains no lands. In a 60-card deck, that would mean you'd have to draw through 3 cards--certainly not unreasonable, as this may be just in time for your fourth land drop. In a 140-card deck, on the other hand, you'd have to draw through a whopping 7 cards just to find your next mana source. Even Two-Headed Giant games are usually decided by then.

I admit, there are often successful 61-card or 62-card decks. But nitpickings aside, the point is to keep your decks as small as possible. It's far too easy to go overboard and throw in all your favorite cards (especially online). Refrain! Probability will love you.

b. Include the proper ratio of lands.

Although proper deck-building takes more than just "the right number of lands," it's still an important ingredient. In a 60-card deck, begin with 24 cards of the appropriate color(s). From there, playtest playtest playtest. Often, it takes 10 games for me to realize my deck only needs 23 lands instead of the full 24 (or even as low as 20, in a very cheap mono-white weenie deck).

And if you don't think that one land can make a difference...remember what you said on that turn you really needed some removal and all you got was a Selesnya Sanctuary.

c. Ensure a decent mana curve.


There are a number of good programs
for calculating mana curves. This one is
from MTGO. This is also a bad mana curve.

While I was deployed, one of my friends presented me with his first-ever Magic deck. It was an Angels deck. The cheapest creature in it was an Angel of Mercy.

A deck-full of expensive Angels, no matter how tough they might be, won't do you any good against an aggressive "Zoo" deck (Hounds, Apes, Lions, oh my!). If you literally can't cast anything before turn 5, then there is absolutely no topdeck you can have that will save you.

Make sure you have cards in the 1-2 mana slots as well as the 5-6 slots. Preferably, something that can stop creatures. Make sure there's enough of them for you to draw one reliably in your opening hand or in your first few turns. Your topdecks will thank you.

Okay, let's assume you understand enough about deck-building to make a decent decklist. Let's see what other ways there are to improve your current library's topdeck.


2. Card Draw.

This is the first recourse that occurs to most people: getting the one card you need is more likely if you just draw more cards! Unfortunately, there are several problems with just throwing in a few Inspirations into your decks, casual or otherwise.

a. They take the place of cards that actually "do" something.
Drawing a Catalog doesn't help much on its own if what you really need is a quick blocker or removal. Yes, that Catalog might in fact help you dig into the answer you needed, but...

b. Unless it's later in the game, they might be all you have the mana for on your turn.
Which means waiting yet another turn as enemy creatures pound you. Even instant-speed EOT cards still require you to to leave mana open.

c. Draw cards might just dig you into a land drop you didn't need and...another draw card.
Too few draw cards mean they never show up. Too many means that's all you ever get.


And it draws cards, you say?

Other than maybe as a mid/late-game hand refill option (I'm looking at you, Harmonize), I'd stay away from straight-draw cards for your decks. Not that card-draw is bad, by any stretch of the imagination. But if you're going to draw cards, why not do something else at the same time? Something besides just replacing draw cards with more draw cards? Something like...

a. Planting down a warm body.
Might we just suggest the Mulldrifter? It's a house speciality. There's also the Ohran Viper, Fathom Seer, Shadowmage Infiltrator, Citanul Woodreaders, and a host of Merfolk that want to make your acquaintance. And that's just in Standard!

b. Using some built-in card selection.
This is the reason cards like Fact or Fiction, Compulsive Research, and Thirst for Knowledge are such a hit--they combine card draw with card selection. The genius! Not only refilling your hand, but doing so with the best cards from your topdeck! I really must write mother about this...

c. Setting up a reusable effect.
A card that replaces itself once is not as cool as a card that does so over and over again, making big on your investment. Hence why even "painful" cards like Bob and Phyrexian Arena are popular--they're the gift that keeps on giving. But in a good way. Heck, if you're looking for a reusable way to fill your hand, even Pulse of the Grid deserves some loving.

d. Using an installment plan.
Yes, a card like Think Twice technically costs 3UU to draw 2 cards. But it's done at instant-speed...with any left-over mana at the end of your turns! ("At your convenience" is a phrase they like to use in used-auto sales.) And even Phyrexian Arena, although it requires 1 life every turn, is not unreasonable in a deck set up to gain that life back.

So if you're going to draw cards anyway, why not do it via a generous installment plan?

e. Using whatever sub-standard options you guys get stuck with in Standard. Bwa ha ha ha ha!
All right, I kid. Standard may not have access to Ancestral Recall or even Brainstorm, but R&D makes sure you get your share of the fun.

Although not all straight card-draw options are atrocious, there are, in my opinion, a number of other ways to improve your topdeck. Some of them a good deal better than just splashing Blue.


3. Card Selection.

"Card selection," as opposed to "card draw," means arranging the top cards of your library before your all-important draw step. It's the "draw better" instead of just the "draw more."


Draw smarter, not harder!

According to www.magiccards.info, there are over 60 cards in Magic with an Index or Impulse-like effect. Most are in Blue, obviously. There are, however, options in other colors:

(Oh, and any card with the Scry mechanic. Those rock too.)

Obviously, some choices are superior to others. But to be honest, most card selection options are not much better than straight card draw--again, they take the place of a card that could actually do something. For example, everyone's favorite card selection choice (Sensei's Divining Top) could be rephrased to read:

1: Look at the top three cards of your library, then push your bad draws off till later. Have them all catch up to you at the worse possible moment, much like the collection agencies pounding on your door.
t: Draw a card, then put Sensei's Divining Top on top of its owner's library. Waste precious time and resources just to get it out and working again.
Even cards with free effects like Abundance both a) require a deck built around them, and b) take the place of threats themselves. (After all, drawing a second Abundance when naming "non-land" is a "bad thing.")

I understand that not all of my readers will agree with these judgments. Indeed, card selectors like the Top are far more potent in a Limited setting, when sub-standard cards are the norm and there's only 40 cards to worry about. Additionally, if you have a deck that already shuffles itself often (say, with Rampant Growths or fetchlands), then a reusable effect like the Top would let you touch at least 6 cards per turn. I suppose it's safe to say the value of card selection must be discovered by each player for each of their decks--particularly if they're digging for pieces in a combo deck.

Just don't run out and grab a playset of Myr Mindservants for them.


4. Deck Redunancy.

Certain decks like mono-white weenies or mono-red burn have no reliable options for drawing cards in color. Instead, they must balance this lack of deck-digging by making each and every one of their cards as versatile as possible. Take a look at this Top 8 contender from Pro Tour-Yokohama (2007):


Rar!
Tomoharu Saito's Deck, PT YokohamaMagic OnlineOCTGN2ApprenticeBuy These Cards
Creatures:
4 Blood Knight
4 Magus of the Scroll
4 Mogg War Marshal
4 Sulfur Elemental
4 Timbermare

Other Spells:
3 Assault // Battery
4 Fiery Temper
4 Rift Bolt
4 Stormbind

Lands:
4 Forest
15 Mountain
2 Pendelhaven
4 Terramorphic Expanse



In a nearly mono-Red deck such as this, good card-draw is at a minimum. (Browbeat doesn't reliably give you cards unless the opponent is already nearly dead.) Yet the brilliance of this deck lies in that Tomoharu doesn't need to draw additional cards--every single one he pulls can deal blazing-quick damage. Pendelhaven can combo with either Magus of the Scroll or Mogg War Marshal, Assault//Battery can either deal 2 to the face or place a substantial threat into play, and Stormbind can boost a Fiery Temper or even turn a topdecked land he doesn't need into a potential weapon. It literally doesn't matter what Tomoharu draws; his opponent is going hurt very quickly.

This is the sort of synergistic redundancy you should strive for in every one of your decks.

Although this topic could fill an entire article in and of itself, I will make some quick suggestions. Improving your deck's redundancy begins first with deciding its purpose. Does it deal quick and efficient damage in as few turns as possible? Does it clog the battlefield and swing in later with fliers? Does it frequently clear the board, counter any key spells, and finally beat face with a massive win condition? If so, make sure every card in your deck supports that theme. (For instance, in the last example, a playset of Oona's Prowlers probably would not work well, as excellent as they might be.)

If every piece of your deck works with every other piece, then (in theory) it also doesn't matter what you draw either. And that, by itself, could be more valuable than all our other tips so far.



Why does Blue always get the over-
powered ones? ...Wait, was that a
stupid question?

5. Harbingers.

The Lorwyn block has single-handedly doubled the number of cards in this category--namely, those that search your library for a specific type of card and slap it on top for your next draw. And although I coined the phrase from the Lorwyn cycle, "harbingers" can refer to anything from the completely-redonkulous Vampiric Tutor to the interesting Momir Vig to the best-forgotten Long-Term Plans. The best side of the new Lorwyn cards, however, is that the "harbinger" effect is attached to a (usually) decent body for the mana. I mean, what's better than laying down a 1/3 blocker than knowing your next draw is the pivotal Gaddock Teeg? (Or even a Changeling Hero, while we're at it?)

Remember, the tutor effect is a "may" ability (since you're allowed to search a hidden zone and come up empty, if you wish). Consequently, you don't have to ruin a wicked topdeck you might already know you have. Yet another bonus to an already-awesome cycle.

(Use instant-speed harbingers whenever possible, since they let you wait till the end of your opponent's turn before deciding what to search up.)


6. Deck Thinning.

I may be "meh" about the aforementioned techniques, but I'll swear up and down by this one. This is by far my favorite venue of improving topdecks, but it's one that I see far too many players forgetting. It's called thinning your deck.

Consider the seemingly-innocuous Kodama's Reach, prized by Green mages everywhere for its land-finding abilities. Consider also that Kodama's Reach not only a) accelerates your land drops and b) fixes your colors in a multi-colored deck but also c) rips out 2 lands out of your deck that you'll never have to worry about topdecking!

Let's use the following sample starting hand as illustration. You're on the play. (Assume a 60-card deck with 24 lands.)

1 Terramorphic Expanse
2 Forest
1 Search for Tomorrow
1 Kodama's Reach
3 Other cards we don't care about

On turn 1, you play the forest and suspend the Search. Turn 2, you play and crack the Expanse. Turn 3, you play both the unsuspended Search and your Kodama's Reach, giving you 5 lands in play.


Ravnica dual-lands make this card
even better than it already was.

Now, with a normal deck without the land-find, you may not have yet drawn another Forest, leaving 21 lands left in the deck. Since you're on the play, this translates to 51 total cards left in your library, or a 41% (21/51) chance of drawing a land next.

But let's say that from this point, you'd really like to start draw creatures. Using the sample hand I've just given, you'd have drawn 9 cards total, plus the 4 additional lands you pulled with your land-find. Consequently, you have only a 36% (17/47) chance of drawing a land next.

And that's only in the first three turns! It's simply amazing, isn't it? I bet many of you didn't realize just how much of an impact land-search has: it uses tutor-like effects, not to place threats/answers in your hand, but to remove the chaff from your library for later. (Not to mention that in many decks, like mono-white or red, it can be your best option other than redundancy.)

For many of you, this is old news. For others, however, the light bulb has just begun to glow.

Deck-thinning can come in a variety of different forms, from permanents that sack (Terramorphic Expanse, Wayfarer's Bauble) to tutor-like cards that fetch land (Kodama's Reach, Twisted Abomination) to even very-useful blockers that can fix your colors (Sakura-Tribe Elder, Seedguide Ash). Following are some inexpensive options you should be aware of in all colors. (And even using only 1 or 2 playsets makes a marked difference.)
I'll even play with Terramorphic Expanses and Polluted Deltas in my favorite mono-Black control deck, ignoring the odd or berating comments I receive online. I don't use them because need to fix any colors...I use them to set me up for later. The last thing I need to draw is yet another Swamp when what I really wanted was the game-ending Consume Spirit.

An Important Service Announcement on Using Land-Fetchers:

When using permanents like a Terramorphic Expanse or even a Wanderer's Twig, don't crack them until the last possible moment. I.e., when you want to stop drawing lands. The reasoning is simple.

Say that it's on your turn 2 and you have a Plains and a Windswept Heath in play, but no other lands in hand. You really would like your next topdeck to be a land. Do you crack the Heath?

No! Just as using the Heath lessens your chances of topdecking a land, conversely, not using it increases your chances. (Say you have 22 lands left in a 52-card library; your chances of topdecking a land are 42% (22/52). Using the Heath before your next draw lowers your chances to 41% (21/51).) It may not seem like much on paper, but it means a lot when that Forest you yanked would have been your next draw.

To put it more simply, think of it this way--let's say you only have 2 lands left in your deck with a Heath on the table. You have twice as much of a chance of getting both lands if you let one rise to the top and then crack the Heath. Cracking the Heath first means you now have half as much of a chance to topdeck the other land.

Case in point: Often, I'll wait with a Krosan Verge and two Windswept Heaths on the board in my casual mono-white deck till the turn before I know I'm going to play something. Many of my important spells cost 6, and I want to increase my chances of nabbing those last few lands off the topdeck.
Deck-thinning is, in fact, why I'm so excited about cards like Scapeshift. Although it may never see serious tournament play, it can be a powerful tool in a drawn-out Casual game.

(Note: Although deck-thinning most often refers to ripping unneeded lands for the mid/late game, it can somtimes apply to creatures or spells not as useful later. I.e. every harbinger or Llanowar Sentinel you pluck from your deck leaves larger threats and answers for later. Just something to keep in mind.)


7. Oddities.


Well, that's one way to thin your deck.

As with anything else in life, there are always weird exceptions that defy our general rules. In Magic, for example, there are miscellaneous cards that can improve one's topdeck, but only in certain situations or deck strategies. Fa'adiyah Seer, for example, is an excellent kick-start for a dredge deck, which turns its graveyard into its own form of "topdeck." Scrying Sheets is another, as it works well in a snow-themed deck for keeping lands off the top of the library.

Here are some other topdeck-improving ideas. Obviously, most of these would not be termed "auto-includes"; but depending on your particular deck theme and strategy, you may find one or more of them useful. Especially if you're a "Johnny" combo-player.


8. Quick Review!

Since we've covered a decent amount of material, here's a brief reference for the rest of us. (Wait...did I just infringe on someone's copyright?)

1. The Basics.
a. Stick to a 60-card limit for your deck. It improves your chances of drawing into any particular card.
b. Include the proper ratio of lands. Too many or too few lands in your deck means the same for your topdecks.
c. Ensure a decent mana curve. 'Cause sometimes you really need to topdeck a cheap spell.
2. Card Draw. The first recourse of an exasperated deck designer, but not always the best.
3. Card Selection. A great way to waste both turns and mana. Better in Limited, or if combined with frequent library shuffles.
4. Deck Redundancy. A proper deck always begins here. You don't need to draw extra cards if every card does the same thing.
5. Harbingers. Their numbers recently bolstered, cards of this sort often give you a decent body and a great topdeck to boot.
6. Deck Thinning. My favorite for improving topdecks, this method can set up even the most draw-handicapped deck for late-game success.
7. Oddities. Hey, there's always exceptions. And you just might find one to fit that wacky deck idea of yours.
Personal Conclusion: Before tampering with anything else, first increase your deck's redundancy and options for thinning. Then begin looking into your other, favorite ways of improving it. After all, a Survival of the Fittest deck is no good if you can't draw Survival of the Fittest and enough land to cast it.

So what about your own decks? What techniques do you use to ensure the best card during each draw step? Is there anything I've missed? (I know I passed over the dredge mechanic, though it does technically affect your draw step, because there's little you can do to improve it besides make a better deck overall.) Anything I've overvalued? If so, sound off in the forums! I'll see you there.

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