Humans are creatures of habit. We drive the same roads to get to work. We shop for food in the same stores, and take the same route through them each time. If you need further proof, look at a college classroom; the students will take the same seats throughout an entire semester…even though they just file in at the start of the first class.
This habit building and habit following extends into our hobbies. It is very prevalent in Magic.
I’ll use some of my playgroup as an example. I love building little engines and making small synergies snowball out of control. I also love combos, but I can’t be trusted with them. John, on the other hand, loves to grind games to a halt – his games always run long, mostly due to his prevalence for board wipes. Buro loves big creatures; every deck makes a gigantic creature and murders someone with it. And Liz loves big splashy plays. She is happiest stealing things from opponents or dropping haymakers.
We all follow our own habits. I always look for little synergy engines, Buro is always looking for giant creatures, and Liz always wants to drop an elbow. This makes us predictable. This makes us beatable. A playgroup can easily learn a player’s habits, and they then adapt to beat that player. If that succeeds (and the player does nothing), the group further adapts to keep the player down. To avoid this unfortunate situation, you must learn to shake off your habits.
Play Other People’s Decks
Using another player’s deck is the single easiest method of leaving your comfort zone and trying something new. There are more ways to do this than just borrowing – stick with me and I’ll move past the condescension. (I promise!)
The super obvious. “Hey Johnny, can I borrow your Vorel of the Hull Clade deck?” Johnny lets you do all sorts of whacky things with the Vorel deck. You’re hooked – you can borrow a deck from a friend to give a try to the archetypes you normally would avoid. Easy peasy.
This idea was first introduced by Brandon Isleib here and I talked a bit about it here. I’m not going to tread too much on those articles – basically, get some friends, make a pool of decks, determine draft order, hope to be on a wheel, draft decks. (Give them a read for details.)
I highly recommend drafting one or more extra decks than you think you need; this way, you can hate-draft someone else’s deck that you keep losing against. Brandon’s group played a massive series of 1v1 games, but with a minor adjustment this works well in Commander – you just pod up.
I also recommend that you allow each deck to be played only once. You don’t want someone taking a hardcore combo deck and hate drafting all the other hardcore decks. Of course, you probably shouldn’t play with that person anyway.
Build the New Shiny
New and exciting decks are always around. I’m sure you know about Tapped Out and DeckStats to easily find lists – Boom! Make someone else’s list if you have the stuff; I recently built a Kydele, Chosen of Kruphix and Bruse Tarl, Boorish Herder deck. It is completely inspired (ripped off) from Josh Lee Kwai’s deck from the Command Zone. When I heard Jimmy Wong and Josh talk about the deck, I was hyped to build my take on it. Cass built Sheldon Menery’s Ruhan of the Fomori judo-style deck. Then, after a while, he tuned and rebuilt it as Jori En, Ruin Diver, and now Kraum, Ludevic’s Opus.
You can learn a tremendous deal from building a deck you don’t normally play.
Build for Someone Else
This is one of the coolest ways to play someone else’s deck. The core of this idea is based off the Commander VS holiday special. You build a deck to share something – a mechanic or concept or strategy – with a friend. Perhaps, you need to teach them the joy of Counterspell or Lightning Bolt. Or someone simply loves sacrificing creatures for fun and profit, so you make a Reyhan, last of the Abzan and Ravos Soultender deck. With this approach, you can craft decks to do something specific for a friend that you might not have built otherwise.
Just make sure the decks work. Don’t be a jerk.
Learn from Others
Playing someone else’s deck provides a shakeup from your normal habits; inspiration for a new deck can spark easily from this process. On the other hand, our very own Australian mad scientist Kaka tends to take a deck-first approach to his builds. He has an idea for a deck, and then refines the idea until he finds a suitable commander which can help the deck. As a result, many of his decks are not reliant on the commander to accomplish their goals – having the general around just makes things run smoother.
In contrast, pretty much the rest of the GDC crew tend to take a commander-centric approach. We see a new commander, and it sparks the idea for a deck.
You should try both. I recently wanted to make a spell-focused deck; Vial Smasher the Fierce seemed a really good fit, but I really needed access to blue for great spells and great effects from casting those spells. Adding Ludevic, Necro-Alchemist provided access to blue and some deterrence from attacking me to stop the random effects. (Commander 2016 Protip: Using partners allows you to branch both styles of building.) If you’re like the main crew here, take a deck idea and find the color pairs that work best for the concept instead of starting with the general(s). It’s a fresh perspective.
As you continue shaking off some of your habits, you can evaluate cards differently. For example, I hated Wheel of Fortune effects for the longest time. I always just ran more card draw to compensate. Then, I added a couple Wheels to Gisela, Blade of Goldnight after playing against a Wheel-heavy deck helped me considerably. I found that the draw-seven is almost always worth losing a card or two for the massive boost in card quality and quantity.
Other people learn to use different cards to accomplish a goal, such as ramp cards like Cultivate or Coalition Relic. They do similar things, but in different ways. Running more mana rocks or more ramp cards can change how a deck performs. You can also go in the opposite direction and drop the curve so you need fewer mana sources.
This raises a talking point – EDH decks have more knobs to adjust than many other formats. Card draw versus tutors is one example – many formats use one or the other, but here, we tend to use both. However, personal choice (and colors) can impact this. When you move away from tutors, you usually need more redundancy, but you can handle more opposition due to that redundancy. Your deck can be less efficient because of it, but you may find the deck more fun to pilot at a different spot on the spectrum. Using different cards can open up more doors than it seems to on the surface. You start finding other synergies, and other cards to better match those synergies. Soon, you’re building with completely new pools of cards rather than using your standby of the same old thing.
This is the main reason for playing another person’s deck – to get inspired to try new strategies. Commander has every strategy available, but our own personal habits tend to lean on one archetype above the others. Playing more options makes you a better Magic player; say you are learning how to combo off with Kydele, Chosen of Kruphix and Bruse Tarl, Boorish Herder, as you learn this this you strengthen your ability to play combo decks. You also learn how they can best be disrupted. (Often from getting disrupted yourself.) This enables you to not only pilot a combo deck effectively, but you can also now know how hit combo decks in a weak point so they fall like a house of cards.
As you learn different strategies, look for your over-reliance points. I tend to over-rely on small artifacts – either mana rocks or equipment. This is a great example – one day, my friend John repeatedly blinked Lavinia of the Tenth and stopped me from doing anything relevant for way too many turns. Lesson learned.
Yesterday (as of writing this) I did a deck draft with some friends. One of my friends constantly abuses Craterhoof Behemoth as a way to end games. He didn’t realize this until he lost against different decks of his that ended the game the same way. Now, he wants to make a different deck that does something completely different.
You can also learn more than just strategies – you can learn more about deck goals and game experience. The Kraum judo deck I referenced above that Cass has built inspired a whole bunch of the GDC crew to build it as well. I recently turned mine into Ishai, Ojutai Dragonspeaker and Kraum, Ludevic’s Opus to try out some juicy white cards, but I never would have used them if I hadn’t built Cass’s version first to give it a try.
That deck is all about crafting a play experience rather than focusing on a game condition. For me, other times it is all about enjoying a wheel effect allowing me to cast a big dumb Eldrazi off Kydele. Keep your eyes (and options) open.
Specific game conditions are great, but game experiences are the foundation of the stories we tell for years. Play someone else’s deck and learn something new; then, you can craft a deck that becomes legendary in a play group or local game store.
How else can you learn from someone else’s decks? What have you done to break out of your old habits and do something new? Let me know your thoughts!