Kresh the Bloodbraided has been a pet deck of mine for a very long time.  Other than Sharuum the Hegemon, I think this has been the deck that I’ve built more than any other general out there.  It stands to reason that I’ve also given up on it more times than any other as well, and I finally realized my mistake – one that has likely put me in such a bad place game-wise for so long.

Last week, I took a chance and reversed my design preferences, and promptly won four games back-to-back.  But we’ll come back to this in a bit.

For posterity:

MAKE DECKS THAT ALLOW YOU TO ALWAYS BE PLAYING

This is my mantra.  I frequently bemoan my shop’s metagame, which as of late has played out like a giant multi-player goldfishing session.  People seem very keen to come up with cool deck designs and strategies, pack them into 99 cards, and then promptly just try to get them to go off – in the process, completely eschewing things like “answers” and “removal”.  Now, I’m a deckbuilder at heart, so this should be appealing to me, but as it turns out, I hate a story that doesn’t have a happy ending.  This possibly explains why I saw Titanic three times in the theater, and definitely explains why I pull decks apart after one game if they fall flat and don’t deliver.

I know.  Both of those are pretty sad.

The corollary my mantra above is simple:

THE GAME’S THE THING

Commander is meant to be played and enjoyed.  We talk a ton about the “Social Contract”, and how it means that you should do whatever you can to make sure everyone has fun.  To me, it’s a good game.  A nice long game, where lots of cool things happen, there are some big plays, and everyone has a hand in it.  No-one just runs away with it all, or plays Sanguine Bond and Exquisite Blood to just blink the game out of existence.

I’ve apparently managed to forget all of these things in recent months – I’ve been designing using a bottom-up approach; for those unfamiliar with the term, bottom-up design is essentially starting from scratch, coming up with a theme or a strategy, and putting the cards together to make it perform.

People who like building decks more than playing them are bottom-up builders.  They come up with cool theme decks, and piece together crazy strategies to see if they can cram them into a single deck to make them work.

Contrast this with top-down design – this is design that takes a specific system or environment, and tries to solve it by deconstructing it and putting a solution in place.  This is a long-winded way to define the term metagame; competitive players who are more interested in the results than the method of getting them tend to use top-down design when building.

This tends to fly in the face of EDH, and it contradicts quite a few of my own personal tenets as well.  However, results speak volumes.  And as it turns out, top-down design can be applied to Commander without sinking into infinite combos and Stax-control slugfests.  It’s all about perception.

BACK ON TRACK

I’ve been in a massive deckbuilding boom lately; In the past two-odd months, I think I’ve managed to tear down all of my decks (save Mishra, Artificer Prodigy Artifact Chaos and Angus Mackenzie BantChantress) multiple times over; I’ve built new decks, torn them apart, built others, played some, NOT played others, and started the process all over again.  I went from thirteen decks to two decks to eight decks, back to two, up to eleven, back to six, and after this past weekend, a marathon building and tweaking session took me back up to thirteen:

(I might have complained a bit about a certain spoiled DFC Boros angel coming in Shadows Over Innistrad that I think is pretty underwhelming too, but please ignore that part for now…)

The thing that got me excited to do all of this, and arguably has helped me to break my curse and get excited to play EDH again, was reading one of Sheldon Menery’s ‘deck update’ articles that he publishes on StarCityGames.com after a new set comes out and he swaps in a bunch of cards into his decks.  It got me looking at his Kresh list, which got me thinking back to my old list.

I sat there, bemoaning the ‘staples’ and ‘goodstuff’ additions and being disgusted.  Hello, high horse!

Then, I realized that I’ve spent a bunch of time complaining about power level; specifically how it has wicked up in the shop, and how I keep getting beaten by it.  Hello, salt!

Finally – slowly – It dawned on me what was happening.  I put two and two together and realized what I have been doing wrong – building decks in a vacuum, without considering the games that they would be participating in.  In trying to take the high road by innovating and removing cards like Insurrection and Boundless Realms and Consecrated Sphinx, I was setting myself up to be able to do nothing more than play the martyr card when I inevitably got smashed by other players using them.

I finally realized that I had spent a ton of time thinking about what was “right”, instead of what was FUN.  Games are fun.  Who cares what cards get you there?

PUTTING THE TOP DOWN

I set to work building Kresh back up.  I’d post a decklist, but honestly, you can Google “Kresh EDH” and get three-dozen Tappedout.net hits, and many of them will be pretty close to where I went.  I wanted to play my general, and make him big, so my mana acceleration comes with legs – Sakura-Tribe Elder and Wood Elves are key examples.  Sacrifice outlets are pretty huge, so in goes Greater Good and Magmaw and AttritionPhyrexian Reclamation to re-buy my sacrificed creatures.  Tutors like Natural Order that pull double duty by getting a creature and making Kresh bigger.  Fling effects to close out games and provide instant-speed response options that can be back-breaking.  Tons of utility guys like Acidic Slime and Shriekmaw – evoke is a money keyword in a deck like this.

The list keeps going and going.  I wasn’t going to make any new groundbreaking deck construction decisions with this one, but it fed my forgotten EDH gamer side really well – it was familiar, it was powerful, and it was designed to keep up with a strong metagame filled with decks trying to execute focused game-plans.  Kresh can go bigger faster, and runs the removal to make it hard to advance a strategy before you find yourself with a few-dozen power worth of creatures flying at your face.

And as it played out, I had a fantastic experience.  I was able to take a win eventually through the combination of Stalking Vengeance and Malignus with a few sacrifice outlets.  Living Death and some creative use of recursion allowed me to send 40 points of damage to close out the Obzedat, Ghost Council player, who was caught tapped out but would have untapped and easily drained my last seven life.  Momentous Fall refilled my hand and padded my life total long enough to fend off a creature beatdown from Omnath, Locus of Rage, and Magmaw and Malignus allowed me to get exact damage to take out two other players and finish the game.

It was a strong showing – stronger than I’ve played in a long time.  But I enjoyed the game immensely, and I never felt like I was out of contention or just getting left behind by stronger decks.  It felt good to play powerful cards again, and it was a joy to just focus on strategy.  In scoring this win, I remembered exactly what drives me to play this format, and more importantly, to enjoy it in the process.  I’m not going to win any deckbuilding competitions, but I had a blast playing – and it has been a long time since I could actually say that with a straight face.

CLOSING TIME

I know some of you are scoffing at me building an egregious goodstuff deck, and others are probably already off on Tappedout.net.  Both options are cool.  Remember, the social contract is all about making sure everyone has fun, and that includes you.  Play the decks you want to play, and have the game experiences you want to have.  If you’re struggling to enjoy playing lately, try to switch your approach from top-down design to bottom-up, or vice-versa, and see where it takes you.  If you usually prefer to be the one to come up with the wild tribal Minotaur list, but it keeps getting smashed in actual games…switch it up!  Go out and net-deck (GASP!) that Rafiq of the Many deck on MTG Salvation.  Focus on the plays and the games, rather than what you would sink into design.  Just see what it feels like to try a new approach.  And if you’re the one that usually jams a hyper-tuned Animar, Soul of Elements deck, then grab a copy of Ramirez DePietro and try to see how wacky you can get with pirates tribal.

Magic is a game, and games should be fun above all else.  Don’t make it more complicated than it is.

Enjoy-

Cass
@GDCCommander