Off Topic: Deck Engines

Happy New Year!

Hello, my name is Meyou and I like to punch children in the face. Okay, not really, but usually I talk about some odd stuff. Sometimes I don't even talk about Magic. Not today. That's right. No philosophical mumbo jumbo. Instead, I will be laying down my foundations for how to be a better deck builder.


Since a lot of Magic terminology always feels very generic to me, I try to develop my own lingo. I find the approach to be a great way to develop a deeper understanding of Magic and deck design. I think of it as homework or trying to develop a thesis. First, I have to create a definition and then try to defend it. One of the terms I have developed is what I call engines. The term encompasses cards or combinations with repeatable abilities. I originally developed the term to subdivide combos. What I call "pure combo" are decks that play cards in a series of steps. Pure combo decks to me are decks built around such cards like Tendrils of Agony/Brain Freeze and Mind's Desire. In order to complete a Tendrils of Agony kill, a sequence of cards need to be played before casting for lethal. In contrast, engine combos have repeatable abilities and tend to be permanents. Classic combos I call engines are things like Counterbalance with Sensei's Divining Top or Sword of the Meek with Thopter Foundry. The difference between pure combos, engine combos and engines is individual cards can be engines. Cards I consider to be engines include planeswalkers such as Jace, the Mind Sculptor, Titans such as Grave Titan, Argentum Armor, and Dark Confidant.

The reason engines are important is because the large majority of any successful tier-one decks have had engines. Faeries had Bitterblossom, Boss Naya had Basilisk Collar with Cunning Sparkmage, and Necropotence powered the fabled Illusions of Grandeur decks. Go back through Magic history and just about every successful deck has an engine component with only a few exceptions. Seriously, look back. Psychatog had Psychatog, Tooth and Nail had the lovely Mephidross Vampire and Triskelion, and Rebels had Rebels. Engines need to be a crucial part of the deck building process. Without an engine, a deck can be condemned to tier-two status. I may be splitting hairs, but the concept of engines I believe can help move deck builders up to a higher level of construction. Here are a few more engine cards: Astral Slide, Glare of Subdual, Goblin Lackey, Life of the Loam, Eternal Dragon, Survival of the Fittest, Emrakul, the Aeons Torn, and Smokestack.

The dangerous trap of building a deck around an engine is that too many decks become heavily reliant on them for success. The Faeries deck is a great point. Without a Bitterblossom, the deck just flops around like a fish out of water. I always thought the same about Legacy decks sporting Counterbalance. With the blue enchantment in play, it can be very difficult to beat. Without it, the deck isn't quite so scary. I discovered this when testing Thopter Foundry for Legacy. When I hit a Counterbalance, I hardly ever lost and games without the enchantment in play resulted in a game loss. I'm not saying those decks or cards are bad. I simply think a situation were one has to cross his/her fingers every game hoping for the nut draw is a bad idea. Back during Morningtide, sometimes I felt like the lucky winner of the tournament was merely the one who drew the most Bitterblossoms that day. Whenever a player misses their Bitterblossom, I have affectionately termed it as a misfire to stay within the engine theme. A misfire doesn't mean getting mana screwed. It explicitly means not drawing or getting a decks engine online.

As such, decks running engines can be fragile. As much as I like the Standard Affinity with Quest for the Holy Relic to zip out an Argentum Armor onto a creature, I don't like how it can easily misfire. In order to be a better deck builder, I am now trying to build in as many engines as possible into my decks. I call a deck with multiple engines as a deck with a V6. Sure, the name is a little corny, but the name doesn't matter. It is the thought process here that is important. It is why I now tend to gravitate towards decks with a built-in V6. Decks I consider to have multiple engines are decks like blue/black control with its Jaces and Grave Titans, Valakut Ramp with Valakut, the Molten Pinnacle and Primeval Titans, or Legacy decks with Dark Confidant and Counterbalance. In my current belief system, decks with V6 engines are more powerful. Decks with two engines are a lot more resilient and consistent against misfiring.

Serial Dilutions

Take a White Weenie deck getting tweaked. When a player starts throwing in Disenchants, Path to Exiles, and Day of Judgments, the decks core theme becomes more and more diluted. Eventually, the deck loses its entire theme. A control deck that does nothing. I'm not here to completely ban Path to Exiles or say control decks are bad. I think it is a concept a designer should be conscious of when constructing a deck. It one of those things designers can easily fall prey to in order to combat problems. Let's take a White Weenie deck trying to find a solution for something like Vengevine. The easy thing to do for a white based deck would be to start filling it with cards like Journey to Nowhere. Adding the white enchantment dilutes the deck. A better solution would be to find a way to stay within the theme of a deck while dealing with Vengevine. The white weenie deck might be better off adding Baneslayer Angels than creature removal. Another example would be for a Fairies deck to adopt Sower of Temptation to deal with Vengevine than, say, Leyline of the Void.

Take 15 graveyard hate cards, switch out 15 cards from the main of a Legacy Goblins deck. The power level of the Goblins deck has been severely reduced. Every time a card is removed from the deck and replaced with a card not within the decks theme, it causes a serial dilution. The terms come from chemistry. It refers to taking something and diluting it in a series. The mixture can be diluted in half each time. Mixtures go from 2, 4, 8, 16, 32, 64, 128, etc. At 128, there is one part of the original solution with 127 parts diluent. The numbers are probably not as drastic for Magic decks, but the problem still exists. Here is what I am trying to say: every subsequent card removed from a deck has a larger and larger impact on the power level of the deck. The argument may be hyperbolic in nature. Nonetheless, every card not within the theme severely dilutes the power level of the deck. Diluent cards are the ones people throw in their decks just in case. People do it all the time with cards like Disenchants just in case they need to hit an artifact or enchantment. Pretty soon the deck is filled with Swords to Plowshares, Counterspells, and what not. Diluent cards are there just in case. That line of thinking is dangerous because pretty soon the deck does nothing.


Control decks sidestep a lot of my engine theory. It is a simple matter because there are multiple levels to deck building. One of the other concepts I have developed is what I call interactivity. In my opinion, decks should either have very high interactivity or very low interactivity. Dredge is a deck I consider to have low interactivity. Besides some graveyard hate, dredge really doesn't care what the opponent is playing. Classic control decks with Counterspells are what I think of as having a high level of interactivity. It can interact with just about anything. When I begin deck building, I think about a pendulum. Good deck building in my opinion swings to the extremes. Decks shouldn't try to swing in the middle. Adding control cards into an aggro deck is a mistake... unless it fits the theme.

Decks should say one of two things: "Deal with me" or "I will stop you." Control decks can be included in the showstoppers category, but there are other decks that fall into this category. Decks that played Enduring Ideal fall into the this slot. The decks sporting the white epic card fetched up cards like Form of the Dragon, Dovescape, and Solitary Confinement. The whole point of the deck is to Disrupt the opponent's normal plan of attack. I would toss land destruction into this category. An example of this would be the old Wildfire decks around the Champions era. I have to say I hated that deck. Nothing worse than having to sit there and Twiddle my thumbs since I have no lands on the battlefield. Anyway, the decks were very potent because of their ability to mess with the opponent. To summarize: build decks to either be on the offense or defense, not both.

Legacy Goblins or Affinity are a few decks that say "deal with me." Aggressive decks fall into this category because the main strategy is to bash face with decks like Zoo. Again, I'd toss Dredge into this category along with combo decks. For the most part, these decks don't care what the opponent is playing. I suppose I can't completely place these decks in a void. Zoo runs cards like Grim Lavamancer and Qasali Pridemage giving it the capability of interacting with the opponent. My point is when decks such as Zoo starts to fill their decks with cards like Wrath of God, Zoo loses its edge and becomes something else. Kind a like Walgreens. The pharmaceutical chain began with soda fountains in their shops and one of the originators of selling milkshakes with malt in them. Where was I? What I worry about is deck dilution. When a player starts taking an aggressive deck and implementing control cards in the main, the deck begins to lose the power of its linear strategy.
In my humble opinion, Jund was successful for the many ways it could interact with its opponent. I don't consider Bloodbraid Elf to be an engine, by the way. Yes, the card was powerful, but it only gets to do its trick once. Maelstrom Pulse worked overtime taking out permanents and planeswalkers, Blightning ripped apart hands, Lightning Bolt hit face or torched creatures, Goblin Ruinblaster messed with the trilands, and etc. I don't think Magic has seen such a deck since Vindicates and Gerrard's Verdicts. I know a lot of people bemoaned the deck when it was in Standard. I thought it was a great deck because I actually felt like I was playing Magic regardless of the outcome. I wasn't being burnt in four turns by Red Decks Wins, combo killed by Dragonstorm, or having everything countered by some blue deck. I was actually playing Magic. I really hope Wizards makes more decks like Jund viable in the future. Magic no longer needs countermagic exclusively to keep a format in check. Magic can lean on decks like Jund to keep things fair.

Start Your Engines

Let's tie all this together with the new Extended season in mind. Public enemy number one is Fairies at the moment. Beginning the deck building process immediately with Fairies in mind is a mistake. Before a deck builder even begins, he/she is already diluting the deck. Starting with Volcanic Fallout and Great Stable Staag in a deck is metagaming. It isn't deck building. The deck building process should start out pure with the objective of refining/metagaming a deck being stage three of the process. Yes, I am asking the deck building process start in a vacuum without any thought to the current tier-one decks. Let me put it in another way. We have all heard of the creativity box. By building with something like Fairies in mind, the deck builder has already isolated himself/herself into the box of restriction. Avoid the creative handicap.

Stage one of the building process is identifying the engines of the format to build a deck around. Since this is the extended season, here is a short list I devised.

I made the list since I was trolling through cards looking for inspiration anyway. I did not include life gain, loss of life effects, mana abilities, and creature abilities like flying and pump effects. I do not consider those effects to be engines. Creature abilities or pumping effects like Quillspike got the axe due to the Spiritmonger mantra. Engines should give an advantage. Life gain or loss of life isn't necessarily irrelevant. A change in life totals just isn't an engine. The two are about tempo, possibly a combo, but they are not engines. Let me try this a different. I hit my opponent in the face with a Lightning Bolt. The play did not change the game state. My opponent still has the same lands, creatures, enchantments in play, cards in hand, number of cards in the library, and cards in the graveyard. Nothing has changed in my opponent losing life. It is the reason life gain is a horrible strategy. Mana falls in the same category in a different way. The production of mana is about tempo. More mana simply means a quicker or faster deck.

My alpha version of an extended deck would something like the following.

Yup, it's a throwback to old Boss Naya. I didn't include things like Oblivion Ring because it dilutes the decks theme. Ideally, I want to hit a creature with Bloodbraid Elf to bring back my Vengevines. Stage two is about alpha testing. It is the stage where I can figure those nuances out. I may want to switch out Noble Hierarch for Quest of the Holy Relic. I will never know until I test. One thing I really like about the deck is I have multiple creatures with haste that can spring in out of nowhere and attach Argentum Armor.

As an aside, I think a monoblack control deck would be great in the Extended metagame. I thought of this when I was building the engine list and stumbled on the old classic Scepter of Fugue. Discard on a stick would be great at ripping apart the Four Color Control decks and even give Fairies problems. Throw in a couple of Thoughtseizes and rip apart the hands. Toss in some fatties like Abyssal Persecutor and bash face as the opponent sits there with an empty hand.

Stage Three entails metagaming or refining the deck after extensively testing the alpha deck. Now is the time for the question: how interactive do I need to be with my opponents? The dilemma is that the more interactive I make the deck equates into a more diluted theme. For example, some deck is utterly smoking me because I don't have anything to deal with a certain permanent. Going down history lane, Ghazi Glare decks running Glare of Subdual could sideboard in Fortune Thief and quietly build an army since the opponent had nothing to deal with the permanent. A card like Oblivion Ring is a great card to deal with such problems. Including Oblivion Ring makes the decks theme weaker. As a note, I didn't say I made the deck weaker. I made the theme of the deck weaker.

I think that is enough theoretical nonsense for today. Hopefully, some of the theory has merit.

Glimmers of Truth

I believe every Magic writer has good intentions when they write an article. Besides articles for entertainment, the writer hopes to convey a piece of knowledge. A glimpse into his/her psyche and lessons learned. As reader myself, I believe it is my responsibility to pick apart the article and look for those seeds of truth. Even if I disagree with the author, I have to admit when certain aspects of those articles hold merit. As with my article, I don't write to be completely correct in my assumptions. The articles are to contain bits of truth that my readers can pick out for their merit. My last article had some people in an uproar because I called men dogs. I found the overreaction interesting. I do believe as a male that men are less complex than people try to make us out to be. People seem to gravitate to more complex reasons when the solution is much simpler in nature. In truth, I was making pseudo joke while making a pseudo point. The literal interpretation of the writing confounded me a little. Was that my only intent? If anybody has caught on, I like to write my articles with for room for interpretation. I want my readers to think. Part of the folly could be due to the serious nature of the subject. Maybe it is analogous to telling jokes at a funeral. It may be considered tacky.

Good writing to me makes a point and sticks with it. I could have gone back and forth on certain points. To me, that results in bad piece of literature. I can't write an article against drilling for oil in the Gulf then talk about the multiple merits behind the drilling. It is wish washy. I took a stand and stuck with it, for better or worse. I took the stance from the angle that needed saying. I don't think an article on “your partner better damn well be respectful” to be as helpful to the community. I could have, but I didn't. I also tried saying it in the way I thought would have the most impact. Let me put it in another way. Most people are aware of their faults. The straightforward approach doesn't always work on helping people. I could go up to somebody who smokes and say “stop smoking.” If that worked, I highly doubt so many people would be smoking nowadays. Sometimes a different approach is needed to get those people to quit. Then again, maybe smokers aren't very smart. I can say that and you can't. (Family Guy reference anyone?)

I can argue this all day. I won't because people tend to take everything at face value. Being a mischievous youth, my brother and I would sit in some place like a mall and have odd exchanges. We would toy with people. Why? We found it hilarious how many people would take our conversation literally. The talk would always be ludicrous. Mostly Family Guy kind of stuff. I eat poop, steal candy from babies, spit on children, and tear the tags off of couches. My brother and I got quite a few lectures from bystanders snooping in on our conversation. It is one of the reasons I could argue against the points of Mark Rosewater's article Playing with Memories. Everybody believing the article was a reprint for the fact people often believe information for its face value. It wasn't because of memory issues. I suppose I could write Maro and tell him how wrong he was in the article. I won't because it is wrong for me to do so. Mark was making a point. Interjecting my point wasn't the point of his article. Instead of trying to prove him wrong, I will try to find the glimmers of truth in his article that has merit to me. However, I can definitely see why people took it at face value.


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