Imagine a perfect utopia, a blessed, privileged world of EDH where you liked everyone in your playgroup as people, where everyone was in the roughly same ballpark as far as things that make for fun EDH games, and everyone was super chill and capable of having a great time gaming, even if someone did something that wasn’t on their “Fun” list. Now celebrate (for me) because Team GDC has created this perfect world.
Category: Deck Construction (Page 2 of 12)
Have you ever had a deck that just doesn’t work for some reason? When you go over the decklist, there are no glaring holes; if you break things down into categories like ramp, removal, card advantage (tutors and the like go here), recursion, synergy, and win conditions…it all adds up.
But somehow, when you’re playing the deck, it just repeatedly falls flat. Despite several games, you still cannot figure out what is going wrong.
Editor’s Note: This piece was originally published on June 28, 2013. We’re flashing back to some of our best from the past several years every Friday, because what’s old is new again. I (Dave) don’t post much these days either, but I play, read, and argue with team GDC about EDH A LOT. So this is the very first in a series I used to do, in which I pick three random cards and evaluated them, trying to draw a thread between them. It was fun, but be nice; this was the first one.
(OLD Editor’s Note – Welcome aboard, Dave!)
Check it out-
Three Cards Deep: The Good, The Bad, and the EDH Ugly
Editor’s Note: After a brief hiatus that had nothing to do with GDC going down for a few weeks, Lord Krazy Kaka is back with the next chapter in his multi-part series discussing how to build an eggs deck in Commander, and what his favorite breakfast food can really do.
I recall many years ago watching a fishing and travel documentary called “A River Somewhere.” It was an entertaining tale of two blokes travelling to different locations and fly fishing for whatever was there. While travelling around they would have a bit of a chat about the local town or some other amusing anecdote. One particular episode they were fascinated at one restaurant offering 50 different ways to fry an egg. While I don’t know 50 ways, I do often employ several methods depending on whom I am cooking for and my mood. As I become more sophisticated and adventurous in the kitchen, I find myself trying and employing new and different techniques on my eggy dishes.
When we started this challenge from James to make partner commanders work, I had a clever idea. Or I had an idea that I hoped would be clever. Let’s start with the core that he provided; It’s a bit hodgepodge giving a little bit of everything. The problem for deckbuilding, is that it provides a little bit of everything. Mark Rosewater often repeats a mantra that restrictions breed creativity. James didn’t provide much restriction in his core. Of course, this was also the point of the core. It was meant to be flexible for us to build into a full deck.
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.
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!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
In my ongoing attempt to like the Partner mechanic (and based off a discussion we were having in our team Slack chat), I want to try something a little different. A while ago, Sheldon Menery posted an article detailing a ‘modular’ build – not the Darksteel mechanic, but a core deck and a selection of other cards that are interchangeable and can be swapped out to fundamentally change the deck on a moments’ notice. I remember reading this when it first landed, and brushing it off as way too much work.
But then somebody on the team brought it back up, and then Erik said it would be interesting with Partners, and I suddenly became VERY interested in pursuing it.
I have had the privilege—or maybe the pain (depends on the person)—to work with creative designers for most of my professional career, as well as having many friends that are in various design fields. This has led me to expand my own creativity and helped me understand their workflow and how the creative process works for many of them. This has also increased my understanding of a debate that I think most designers have constantly as they work on projects: Form versus Function. Basically, it boils down to a question of, when you create something, whether it doesn’t need to look good, it just needs to work, or is it about the aesthetic the project yields? Apple has tried to create products that capture both of these elements, with devices that look beautiful and perform flawlessly. Magic could be the same way but does Wizards hi the mark?
From The Beginning.
Now that I have you thinking, let me start from the beginning. In my last article, I spoke about the C16 generals and how in my opinion Wizards missed the mark on the partner mechanic when it comes to theme. It appeared to me they focused mostly on the Function of creating great toolbox commanders and not so much on the Form or theme of the commanders. This generated a lot of great discussion (people I love comments), both on thewebsite and in my twitter mailbox, which I thought was awesome. It has also led me here to an article I think is important to write. For the rest of this article we will replace Form with theme as I feel like this is still the same discussion, but theme fits it a little better in the Magic world. Before I hop into each area, know that there is no right or wrong answers here, just a balance that you need to find to maximize your enjoyment of the game. Once you find that, use the social contract to find a group that values the same thing (or as close as you can get. Honestly it’s a lot like hand grenades, close is good enough).
Players have often pushed against theme, saying it isn’t important. In fact, some players go so far as to speak against the story of Magic and how it gets in the way of just playing the game. Theme doesn’t have to be a part of the game you enjoy, but it is a major motivation for a large percent of people that play. Why else are the most popular tribes in magic dragons and angels if most dragon and angel cards never see competitive play? Theme.
Wizards is committed to the story of magic, and they do push themes and metagames to fit their vision of a set. Every set’s design starts with world development, when they determine their key characters and start build cards around the characters and interactions. For instance, look at the Eldrazi sets. There was no way of getting around playing with them and the eldrazi cards, which makes sense since the characters were the flagship images their sets. Wizards built the story around the Eldrazi (Theme) and made sure their cards were pushed to be very efficient and powerful (Function). The Magic Story that goes up every Wednesday also proves this point, as they even interrupted the standard story to give a little background story on the four-color commanders from the C16 set. If Wizards throws that much money at the story, then it should be clear that they believe theme/story/world building is extremely important to a good many people.
Function is a core reason why most of us play the game. We strive to create decks whose functions meets our goals and gives us the experience we desire. In some cases we take it so far that we feel like the only thing important in a deck is how it functions. In fact, some people take no interest in art and story; for them the key is only how fast and efficient can I make my deck. Some EDH groups enjoy this. One group I played with felt if an EDH game went more than four turns it wasn’t worth it (it cut into the amount of games you could have after all). If that is your group’s goal this is fine, just as long as everyone is on the same page.
However, restricting a deck to only focus on function limits your card pool. I call this the “25 best” syndrome. You just acquire the 25 best cards of each color and that is in effect all you play with, because if your focus is only on function why play cards that aren’t the strongest at all times. When people get focused on this style of play, decks tend to get very linear and very similar, which can lead to games feeling the same. It does have the effect keeping a collection smaller and probably cheaper in the long term, however.
All Together Now.
So why try to balance the two together? Why not just focus on that of function? Those are questions we chat about all the time at GDC and honestly the answer generally comes back as, “It’s all been done before.” Now some believe that every deck has been done before, but I can say without a doubt that the closer you get to having that perfectly functioning deck, or the deck that is the most optimized, the closer your deck is to everyone else’s. With a smaller card pool, even different decks start to look alike. When different generals leading “different” decks start to lose their ability to stand out, they become more a toolbox type of general and not something you use to build a story or play out the lore.
The toolbox approach is why I was critical of Wizards in my last article. Partners can be a very rich and fun mechanic, but at least the first iteration focused mainly on good-stuff generals. They are good, but they lack thematic definition. Instead of theme, they become defined by function: combat, or group hug, or card draw. They lack a theme or identity to really build around. Without this build-around theme, they lost the people who want to add a story or theme to their deck. Like in life, the key to making the game fire on all cylinders is balance, like if the Partner Commanders still maintained their functionality but also nailed Theme. You can’t have just theme or just function. Leave one out and you are leaving out a whole subset of players not interested in what you are creating. The story boards and world building are already there so why not make sure you use them.
Wrap It up.
Give it a try. See what adding more balance (via Theme) to your decks does for you play experience, no matter which side you find yourself on. If you already do, great! I hope to sit across from the table from you and see cards played that make me stop and need to read them as you smile along. There’s nothing better than seeing something hit the table I have yet to see and to see it do work!
Until next time, focus on balance, this is EDH.Ghost out!
On a personal note, I feel somewhat conflicted running regular EDH content today, when there’s so much heavy stuff happening in the United States. After discussing it with the team, I was convinced of the value people get from having a place where they can stop thinking about serious issues to recharge. I am not a fan of separating one’s political & moral/social stances from their professional or personal lives, but I respect that others find a break for the political barrage useful. If you want to talk about what’s going on, or have any questions (fair warning, I’m relatively liberal), I’m on twitter: @MdaveCS. Thanks for reading and understanding.
Today, I want to do something a little different. Sometimes, little nuggets of an article bounce around in head. I try to back-burner them and hope they boil into a full length article. At StarCityGames.com, my articles were usually around 2,200 words. GDC aims for articles closer to 1,000-1,500 words; however, some some ideas are too direct or short to turn into a 1,000 word piece.
Enter Quick Hits!
This is where I can put together several small bits and bobs that don’t need as many words. Today, I want to talk briefly about dice, taking back moves, rebuilding decks, and focusing on the lower end of the mana curve.