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Defending the Commander Social Contract

Category: Dear Azami

Deck Doctoring Your Own Decks

We suck at finding problems. For example, answer this question immediately. During your last work project, where did you underperform? Humans are typically bad at identifying weaknesses in ourselves. We have a bias towards believing we are awesome and ignoring concrete examples of mistakes or opportunities to improve. (I don’t want to fight this bias too much; more people need more confidence.) This weakness at identifying our faults is why deck doctor articles exist.

In fact, I would go as far as saying deck doctor articles (and the like) exist for all genres, because of our struggle to identify weaknesses. Want to know the exact point at which you know you are getting good at learning something? It’s when you are able to self-identify the specific behaviors or thoughts you need to correct in your next attempt at a task.

That is what I’m working on today. You don’t need millions of articles telling you to run Exsanguinate because it is the world’s best goodstuff inclusion. (Seriously, Mr.P taught slackbot about Exsanguinate. Now the thing friggin auto-replies with a quote about the card, just so Mr.P could prove a point.) You need help getting better at identifying your deck’s weaknesses so that you can improve them yourself. Without Exsanguinate inclusions. Easy peasy.

Getting the Deck Doctor

Doctors study diseases and how to diagnose them. Treatment too, but diseases are a huge focus of medical doctors’ studies; knowing the progress of the disease allows a doctor to properly treat it. Essentially, studying a deck’s weaknesses offers the same, helping you become a deck doctor. In emergency situations, medical professionals like nurses, use the ABCs to quickly assess the patient’s greatest needs during resuscitation: airway, breathing, circulation, in that order. Deck doctoring has a similar order to follow, but without the clever mnemonic.

When you evaluate a deck, you should go in the following order: manabase, draw spells, ramp spells, removal spells, mana curve, and then win conditions. You always proceed in this order when “Deck Doctoring.” Always. I had a good discussion with Dave about this. Even Dear Azami articles followed this advice for a long time (back when Cass and Sean split the content).

 

Mana Base (Lands)

I’m not going to explode into a mini-article about mana bases. Read this article. I want you to read my article too, but if you have to pick only one then go read Dr. Moldenhauer-Salazar’s article. It will make you a better Magic player. Fix your mana, fix your colors, run enough lands. Too often players have only 34 or 36 lands. Even 38 lets you miss several land drops. Add some basics too. I often see decks with almost no basics, and those decks often suffer because so many lands enter tapped.

Draw Spells

If your mana works, the next step is assessing card drawing power. Most often, this is the place where you can make the single greatest non-land impact on your deck. Blue decks get to cheat here, so I am skipping them. Run draw spells! Black and red actually can run some spells that draw cards. Wheels are draw spells. Wheel of Fortune is a fantastic spell that more people should consider. Or at least look at the more budget friendly options. Black has fewer wheels, but tons of options to trade away life and creatures to draw more cards. Do it.

White and green are a little trickier. Well, they were until WoTC decided that green needs every damn toy in the color pie except removal. Now green decks can sacrifice creatures to draw, draw based on creature size or creature count, draw for smashing face, and like every color, draw with artifacts.

Now white has no draw power. At least in comparison to every other color. There are a few specific cards, but they tend to have restrictions. Artifact based draw is probably the best thing you can hope for. Fun tech: Serum Tank. You’re welcome.

If your draw power is in place, ramp is the next spot to evaluate. Ramp and card draw are like peanut butter and jelly. They go together and make decks great. When you ramp out and have a steady supply of cards, you are thinning the deck, which increases the quality of future draws. Adding more ramp is rarely a bad thing, especially when players are running something like six ramp cards. Would you consider 6% of a 60 card deck as ramp to be enough? That is 3.6 cards. Would you run a deck with four Llanowar Elves and nothing else to ramp and consider that a viable strategy? It’s madness!

Ramp

Run more ramp. The Command Zone espouses the ten ramp and ten card advantage rule. I think those numbers are off, but the core is there. You need a minimum number of ramp to enable you to get to the good stuff. Even if you are running a deck that is heavy on three through six drops, you will have a few big cards you want to cast. Plus you will miss land drops occasionally. Ramp enables you to keep your deck moving towards something, reduces the chances of drawing lands late, and lets you cast multiple spells a turn (from all the card draw you added).

Activated abilities are another reason to up your ramp spells. EDH players hate vanilla creatures. We want value! Creatures with ETB effects are one method of getting value, but we often use cards with abilities that cost mana too. Look at Riku of the Two Reflections, Spirit Bonds, or Azorius Guildmage. These all use more mana to improve your situation. Having enough mana to cast your spells is good. Having enough to activate these abilities, and to hold up mana for answers or improve your board is better.  

Removal

The next step is to check removal. This is sweepers, spot removal, artifact, and enchantment removal. The works. Ideally, a deck can handle everything. But when you simply cannot stop your opposition but you have the other sections in line, you just need more removal. We are fortunate to have so many options with artifacts and ETB creatures. Spine of Ish Sah, Universal Solvent, Scour from Existence, All is Dust, Karn Liberated, and Ugin, the Spirit Dragon all provide options for decks that may be lacking the ability to answer something.

Of course, this also homogenizes EDH decks. But there is no excuse for not having removal. There may be an explanation such as art or theme restrictions, sure, but people are not clamoring to deck doctor their theme and gimmick decks.

When evaluating removal, you want options and mana efficiency. You also should minimize drawbacks. Swords to Plowshares is better than Path to Exile because of the importance of ramp in the format. Condemn is worse than both because it has a restriction, even though the drawback is better than Path to Exile’s. I often favor cards with a higher mana cost when they provide greater flexibility. Mortify and Putrefy are excellent cards. If I have few removal slots for a deck in those colors I would usually take Abzan Charm and Utter End to have more variety, even if it costs me some mana efficiency.

Remember how I listed card draw as the first thing after lands you need to evaluate? Look at Abzan Charm again. It lets you draw cards and function as removal when you are in trouble. This is the versatility we prize so highly in Magic. Shriekmaw and Mulldrifter aren’t the most efficient cards. But they play multiple roles easily in the early, mid, and late game. Since spot removal is typically seen as card disadvantage (you and another player lost one card each, while the other two players are up a card), you usually want to find other sources of removal. Viashino Heretic can repeatedly destroy artifacts, Visara the Dreadful or Avatar of Woe can take down a creature a turn. The repeatability enables you to get an advantage over several turns.

When you are in doubt, just add more removal. Everyone talks about how Wrath of God and Austere Command are excellent for Commander. But few players say to run more spot removal. Wraths do great work. But a Wrath won’t save you from a haste creature or allow you to decide exactly when to remove a problem. Spot removal does. Why do your opponents’ work for them? Let them attack each other and save the spot removal for when you need it.

Mana Curve

I’ve talked about mana curves before. Deck doctoring the curve is mostly about noticing a gap or extra density. Six mana is a likely glut. Six mana in a three color deck is especially juicy. Big sweepers, titans from M11, Wurmcoil Engine, souls of places from M15, commanders, dragons, big enchantments like Collective Blessing or True Conviction, and more are all at the six mana slot. Upping ramp cards enables you to get to all these great cards. But sometimes you need to drop the curve a bit when you have six Eldrazi cards that cost more than seven mana, plus other top end cards.

Win Conditions

This is the first place I see players look when they need to fix their deck. This is the last place to look! Commander has endless win conditions, and they don’t need to be huge spells. A small army of 2/2 and 3/3 creatures can make short work for an opponent’s life total, even with multiple opponents. Learn from Starcraft and don’t ignore the possibility of a Zerg rush.

Sometimes people mislabel cards aswin conditions. I see this most often with green ramp decks. Rampant Growth, Explosive Vegetation, The Baron approach that Adrian Sullivan used won’t work in EDH.

But don’t worry too much about making them more efficient. I recently built [card]Rishkar, Peema Renegade"> into nothing. A win condition impacts the board. Make sure you have more than one. The Baron approach that Adrian Sullivan used won’t work in EDH.

But don’t worry too much about making them more efficient. I recently built [card]Rishkar, Peema Renegade with all the big dumb green creatures that get cut from decks to make room for the show stoppers like Avenger of Zendikar. You can certainly win with cards that are awesome-but-maybe-not-quite-as-good-as Avenger and Hoof.

 

ABCs Again

When you deck doctor, follow the order. Mana, draw, ramp, removal, curve, win conditions. Always start with the mana and work your way down the chain. You will be amazed at how many two or three color decks start off balanced but shift into a splash of one color over time. That isn’t actually a bad thing. What is bad is the mana still looking like the Jeskai deck is a full Jeskai spread rather than a W/U deck with a sliver of red. Always go in order.

Importance of Synergy

When I discussed the deck doctor concept with Dave, he included a bit about where Sean would place synergy in the list. I disagree. Not that synergy shouldn’t be included, it should. But synergy should not be included in the ABCs of deck doctoring. This may seem counter intuitive, but synergy should not be added in like a patch. Synergy should be incorporated into every step of deck building and deck doctoring.

Increasing a deck’s synergy increases its strength, sometimes exponentially. Adding synergistic mana, draw spells, ramp spells, removal spells, and win conditions will turn a deck into a machine. A machine functions better than the individual parts that comprise it. Here is an example of what I am talking about, turning Jori En, Ruin Diver from a card that occasionally triggers into an engine that keeps a deck flowing in cards. Synergy is like a deck’s morality or ethics. Everything we do should follow our morals, to the best of our ability. Everything in a deck should be as synergistic as we can make it.

The Explanation

You should always follow the ABCs for resuscitation. You should always follow the deck doctor order: mana, draw, ramp, removal, curve, win cons.. But why?

You start with mana because you cannot do anything if you cannot cast spells. You cannot draw cards without lands. You cannot ramp without ramp spells in hand. You cannot remove problems if you don’t have enough mana to make removing something worthwhile. You cannot drop your curve if you have no way to use the excess mana for interactions. You cannot win a game that you have already lost.

Moving from lands to win conditions strengthens a deck. Each step makes the others possible and improves your deck. Simply fixing your lands, adding draw spells, and adding ramp spells will usually fix all your problems.

Learn this and you can deck doctor for yourself. You can evaluate which pieces are weak and adjust your deck to maximize your goals.


Let me know if you start somewhere else in deck doctoring or what should be added? Does the order need to change in your opinion? Hit me up in the comments and the twitterverse.

-Erik

Memorial Day At GDC – A Short Post On Things Past And Things To Come

Hello, fellow readers-

I hope the day finds you all well.  For those of us in the US, this long weekend brings us Memorial Day today; as a result, I’ll be heading out shortly to spend the day with family, so the update for today will be a light one.

That isn’t to say that we don’t have some details to look at, though.  I try never to show up empty-handed, after all. 

RECENT DEVELOPMENTS

Most of you know that I’ve been helping fill in for ‘Dear Azami’ for Sean McKeown over on StarCityGames.com while he gets out to handle some of his many other responsibilities.  As you may have seen on his article today, I’ve been offered a permanent home as co-author of “Dear Azami’ moving forward.  As a result, Sean and I will split the schedule on an alternating week schedule.  Pretty exciting stuff!  

I don’t plan on changing the schedule over here one bit, however; GDC is my baby, and we’re speeding up, not slowing down.  As a result, I plan on sleeping less in order cover the increased load.  Seems like a great plan, right?  I know half the joy of my articles is trying to decipher what the hell is actually being said through the early-morning caffiene-deprived haze anyway, so…get ready for more of that.

Alternately, feel free to send donations in the form of Dunkin Donuts French Vanilla coffee.  If I could figure out how to breathe that stuff, I totally would. 

SMILING FACES

I’m also moving ahead with the ‘guest writer’ plan too, which was kicked off last week with Imshan from Commandercast.com fame chipping in for the Intet piece.  So far, the response has been really strong from his article, which should come as no surprise to anyone who has read his article series “Generally Speaking” over on the ‘Cast.  I want to thank him again for dropping in, and hopefuly he’ll be stopping back over for a visit now and then.

I’m finishing up securing a few other writers at the moment, and we’ll be premiering another article later on this week from one of them, so please stay tuned.  I’m pretty stoked on the added content -It’s all quality, it’s all pretty different in a “world view” sense from where I come from, and I can catch a nap every now and then as well.  Kind of a win/win/win…

DJ FINALLY STEPS INTO THE 21st CENTURY

You’ve probably also noticed that I’ve got both a Twitter and Facebook account up for GDC now.  Anyone who knows me knows that I’m pretty much anti-social media because I don’t want anyone from my past to find me to get sucked in to all of that crazy business.  Well, my brother (who is part of the team working on the site redesign and also did my curret header art) talked me into it, so here they are:

Check out my Twitter feed here

Check out my Facebook page here

And yeah…I’m still figuring out what to do with both, so hang in there as content develops.  (Shoot me an e-mail with any ideas on how to make these new-fangled contraptions better as well…I’m all ears.)

GOING BACK TO THE OLD SCHOOL…AGAIN

Okay, okay.  I’m already rebuilding the stable a bit already, so soon on the heels of the reset I detailed a few weeks back.  I stopped and looked at my current four decks, and came to the realization that for someone who preaches the joys of old obscure generals, I was woefully under-representing.  

Enter one of my old flings from back in the day:

I also realized in re-examining things that I managed to completely wipe out my dedicated aggro offerings when I took apart my other decks, and since I’m really into the idea of attacking in this format, I wanted to get back in the game with a decent R/G aggro deck.

With that, the Livonya Aggro Project begins. 

Right now, I need some help on an initial direction, so I need e-mails from you.  Hit me up here, and tell me which one of the following directions is the correct way to go:

1. Equipment
2. Voltron-Style
3. Giant Beaters
4. Tokens
5. That Other Angle I Missed

Feel free to mix and match or dive into details on your suggestions, but I need to know where to start with this thing first and foremost, and so far I’ve only got the generalherself sitting in a light-grey sleeve.  Help a brother out.

With that, I’m off.  We’ll see you all very soon.

—>DJ

 

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