A while back, I had the idea to write an article on a fun little casual format (other than Mental Magic). But then, I thought, casual format articles are boring. So, I decided to make it fun. Instead of making a few decks myself, I thought, why not have several of the other writers here do it? And why not see who did it best? So, this series will not only introduce you to an odd format, but will also document a little tourney between six writers here, testing not only our deck building and play skills, but our ability to judge a novel format. The competitors are myself (VestDan), Dom Camus (Bateleur), CynicalSquirrel, Benjamin Ng (Aurorasparrow), DarkRitual, and Ted Dickinson (Binary). The format is Alphabet Magic.
Alphabet Magic is a restricted singleton format. Decks are constructed of 26 cards, one beginning with each letter of the English alphabet, and a minimum 14 basic lands, for a minimum of 40 cards, with no sideboards. After some consideration, I opted to use the Legacy banned list, as singleton games can already be swingy without Power involved. Fadeblue, who wished to be involved but could not play, acted as custodian of decks – each player sent him his deck list, so we would not influence each other's deckbuilding. While I was somewhat afraid that the limitations of the format would cause many of the players to hit on the same strategy, that happily did not turn out to be the case.
Here are the decks each writer came up with, and their thoughts on deck construction.
VestDan (Daniel Rezendes)
Looking through the more limited letters like X and Z and Q, I found that the best cards in those letters were typically black or green, so I decided on the Rock, which I've always liked for its resiliency. I went for something of a control strategy, using Volrath's Stronghold and Golgari Guildmage to recycle utility creatures (though Genesis would probably have been a better option), and winning with a combination of small evasive creatures like Dauthi Horror and Xiahou Dun, the One-Eyed and fat like Ink-Eyes, Servant of Oni. The deck has minor morph and tribal beast themes. The green component allows me to tutor for lands, which the Rock always needs a lot of, while the black allows for removal and recursion.
Binary (Ted Dickinson)
The beginning of my deck really started at the end: I knew what my choice for Z was going to be before anything else, and the rest of the deck fell into place around it. Since the decks are only 40 cards, milling strategies are a bit more viable. Glimpse the Unthinkable alone can knock out 1/3rd or more of a player's remaining library.
The rest of the deck is basically there to protect me against what my opponent manages to play before I get the lock set up.
The basic land formation looks strange, but it is primarily there to minimize the odds of Tainted Pact ending before I find what I'm looking for.
In retrospect there are a couple of cards I could have made better choices (Jester's Cap would have been a better fit for J) but I didn't want to completely get rid of creatures in case I needed some protection.
I went with Gruul Beats. Having a good consistent deck with a good mana curve is important to me. It’s kind of hard to make a deck like that when you are restricted to one card for every letter of the alphabet. But what I did with those restrictions is go and find good creatures for each letter. I had to be careful and make sure I didn't overload one mana slot. The deck ended up being pretty good. The mana curve is smooth, and I also threw in some removal to balance things out. The way the format is set up, I'm thinking mass removal is going to be lower than in a normal metagame. If I'm right, a beatdown deck like mine will be hard to beat.
Aurorasparrow (Benjamin Ng)
When considering the format, three things immediately came to my mind: search would be very important to get any form of consistency, aggro would be popular because control/combo has problems finding substitutes for its power cards, and mill might be viable. After failing to make a viable mill deck, I started picking out searchers like Academy Rector and Pattern of Rebirth, eventually adding Survival of the Fittest and Genesis for a powerful toolbox/recursion deck.
For my alphabet deck, I decided to go with some good old fashioned mono white control. I'm not even sure exactly why, I guess I was just in an MWC mood at the time. I also really wanted to abuse Land Tax/Scroll Rack/Balance, but then saw we were using the Legacy banned list so had to promptly replace them. The current list is kind of weird, but it works, with Wrath of God as the staple mass removal, but still with the powerful Scroll Rack draw engine. The most interesting part of the deck is its win condition: Goblin Charbelcher. Basically the deck tries to control the board while thinning its deck out with Eternal Dragon and Tithe, then eventually wins with Charbelcher activations. It should be a fun deck to play, not to play against.
Bateleur (Dom Camus)
I'm not normally a Constructed player, so I approached my deck design with very few preconceptions. I tried building one combo deck (based around Mind's Desire), one control deck (based around a classic Blue/White core) and one beatdown deck (mono-Red). I quickly spotted the problem - whilst it was easy enough to build Highlander-style decks, there was far too much contention for certain letters.
The combination of this and the fact that I don't know the Legacy environment at all well led me to choose a beatdown deck. I loved the mana in my mono-Red version but it felt underpowered. It was when I was trying to work out how to fix my manabase that I realised what strategy I wanted to adopt. To avoid wasting too much deckspace on extra mana I would play multiple Green mana creatures and then run equipment to turn them into credible threats.
I've read enough Constructed match reports to know that there's two things one wants from a beatdown deck: speed and the ability to win after mass removal. I added the excellent Fires of Yavimaya and Lightning Greaves to the deck to help with the speed side, then Caller of the Claw and Genesis for the durability. At this stage I filled in a few of my creature slots where I was already confident I knew what I wanted and added Umezawa's Jitte as my first combat equipment.
My next concern was whether there might be decks that could somehow stop me beating down entirely. I wasn't worried about mana locks, but Ensnaring Bridge and the like could be a real pest. I added Viridian Zealot, then reluctantly included Naturalize too on the basis that with no sideboard the maindeck would just have to make space.
At about this point I started looking at my options for unused letters. I was pleased to note I had a couple of Red X-spells available, since I knew I'd need burn to finish some matches. The inevitable Xantid Swarm took my X-slot, which determined my other equipment choice: Sword of Fire and Ice.
With only a few slots remaining I had only A, B and O to play with. I knew I wanted more land, but in the end decided to devote only one slot to it, using the frequently underrated Boros Garrison to get a bit more value out of it. There was nothing I much liked for O, but with a number of ways to do 6+ damage from a single source in my deck I felt Overblaze was a reasonable card that should contribute something to the pace of the deck. I was unsure what I wanted in my A slot but knew I wanted it to be fairly cheap because my curve felt too high. Artifact Mutation won through over Arc Lightning since I still felt uncomfortable about the possibility of some fearsome artifact-based deck of doom that I simply hadn't spotted.
I did a small amount of goldfishing using Magic Workstation and decided the deck's curve was still fractionally too high. I considered a number of changes, but in the end only swapped out Masticore for Magma Jet.
I submitted with a certain trepidation that possibly I was taking a knife to a gunfight, so it's good to see some of the other decks looking at least potentially beatable. CynicalSquirrel's deck is the one I really dread due to his multiple boardsweepers and the potential for Eternal Dragon recursion in the late game. Of course, there's always the potential for my deck to be let down by my relative lack of playing skills!
Of six decks, only two – DarkRitual’s and Bateleur’s – are similar strategies. Four of the six decks use green, particularly for mana (as fourteen lands is not enough for a 40 card deck), while only Binary’s deck – the only three color deck – uses blue. Interestingly, every deck makes some use of legends, which is less a method of maximizing power and more because letters they occur in – Y, I, and X especially – aren’t the beginnings of many words, and the best cards for those letters are more likely to be proper nouns. Considering this, it seems that Iwamori of the Open Fist may be a little more risky than he would first appear.
Looking at these decks, there’s quite a few creative bits I hadn’t considered. Goblin Charbelcher can become a potent source of recurring damage with a lot of land tutoring, which is a necessity of sorts in this format to begin with. Certain letters offered better options in the obscure Portal sets, such as Just Fate and Xiahou Dun, the One-Eyed – having a playable X in particular seems like quite an advantage. The most interesting deck, I think, is Binary’s mill strategy – I had not thought that there would be so many good mill cards starting with different letters of the alphabet. I’m looking forward to see how it works.
Certain letters were no-brainers. Quirion Elves is good mana accel and mana fixing, while Umezawa's Jitte is obviously a game-winner. X was generally a dead card for non-black decks, and black has to resort to Portal 3 for a genuinely good card. Many of the decks utilize recursion or search effects to add all-important consistancy, while a few (the RG beats decks in particular) try more to just have a high overall card quality.
The first round pairings are already underway:
VestDan v. CynicalSquirrel
Binary v. Bateleur
DarkRitual v. Aurorasparrow
Tune in next time to see how these matches play out!