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.