Defending the Commander Social Contract

Category: Getting Punched In The Face

Black Sheep – Getting Through


Soldiers stand on either side of the battlefield awaiting the order to charge. Enemies lock eyes and grip their weapons. The tension hangs thick like morning fog. Win or lose, the price will be measured in buckets of blood. Two commanders stand apart and calculate what this war will. One of them reaches out their hand, and prepares to speak,

“Ok, well I guess it’s your turn Fred.”

No matter how you dress it up, stalemates are boring.

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The GDC Guide to Deck Construction, Part 1: Card Evaluation

Happy Friday, everyone! 
I decided to cap off what has proven to be a very trying week with the first installment in a series on deck construction – a look at card evaluation, DJ-style. 
Now, a  quick disclaimer – when I say “DJ-style”, I mean that I’ll be mixing up my usual concoction of equal parts sarcasm and questionable reasoning, sprinkled here and there with an honest attempt to address the subject at hand. 
(It’s not easy to appease everyone, so I like to aim low and try to appease no-one.  Ask my wife…) 
That said, my more straight-laced readers seeking actual strategy content (yes, both of you) should find some goodies contained within.
One of the things that initially drew me to EDH was the format constraint placed on deckbuilding.  I used to hate forty and sixty-card formats because I’m terrible at making cuts to get to a proper deck size.  I hate missing a card I should be playing.  Being presented with ninety-nine slots, all of which (for the most part) need to be unique seemed like a huge blessing to my infuriatingly stubborn deckbuilding sensibilities.
Most of you already know where this is going, right?
The truth is that EDH has forced me to learn deck construction and card evaluation far better than I ever had it in my competitive past life.  In Legacy, if you need a counterspell effect, you slot four Force of Will.  In EDH, you can only have one, and you’re far less likely to draw it naturally.  What fills the other three slots?  How many extra slots do I need to be equally likely to pull a counter when I need it? 
I’d bet that native EDH players are far better at card selection on average then most of the other Magic formats.  I really would.
Of course, this doesn’t necessarily make things any easier for us, knowing we have one of the largest card pools to draw from, and the most slots to fill in the process of doing it.  (Seriously…why do you think I keep posting deck-building contests?  It’s for my sanity.  If I sat any longer then I already do staring blankly at bloated card lists in Excel, I’d be certifiable…)
So we all need to develop a way to decide for us what cards actually earn those precious slots. 
Here’s how I frequently do it.
We’ll start by assuming two things that will be covered in separate articles:
1)      You’ve chosen a general and a strategy/theme for your deck
2)      You’ve identified the role the card you’re evaluating is going to play.
We’re making these assumptions so that we know what colors we’re in, and also so that I don’t have to explain why you shouldn’t be trying to evaluate whether Stonehewer Giant is a reasonable fit for a slot in your deck dedicated to card draw.
I know.  Cart in front of the horse.  I didn’t feel like discussing land-to-business ratios, or why Riven Turnbull wouldn’t be the ideal general for your elves tribal deck today.  We’ll get back to that later on.
So we’ve got a role to fill, the colors to build with, and we’ve been combing Gatherer for options.  Let’s start at the top and work down.
QUESTION 1: Will I actually play the card?
This seems like a no-brainer, but it’s frequently the most important aspect of preventing “goodstuff creep” from happening.  Am I including the card simply because it’s a good card, knowing full well that I’ll draw it and stare at it until the game ends because I don’t enjoy playing it?  The best example I have of this is Genesis.  I recognize the card is a powerful card.  I have several decks that it was (or still is) in.  90% of the time, I just get irritated by having to jump through the hoops it requires, and either don’t cast it, or let it go to the yard and not use it.  Seriously…I just hate the damn card, so I misplay it as a result.  
I’ll remind you all that I’m not a very good player.  But the point is valid.  Do you sit there holding that Insurrection because you know it’ll completely piss off the table when you play it?  Feel guilty about running out that Genesis Wave in your Omnath deck for fifty-six?  
Pull ‘em out.  Who cares how good the card is…put in something you’ll actually use.  It’s not rocket science, people.
QUESTION 2: Do I hate the card?
Again, it seems so simple.  I understand Geth, Lord Of The Vault is an unbelievably-strong inclusion in black decks in general, and specifically in zombie tribal and mill strategies.  Despite that, I just won’t play it; when I’ve played against it in the past, the interactions I’ve had left me feeling angry at best.  More often, I find myself standing in a parking lot complaining to someone about how annoying the card is, how terrible it was to be on the receiving end of it, and how it’s the cause of world hunger, the melting of the polar ice caps, and Restless Leg Syndrome.
And then I blog about it.  Forcing all of you to read about it, and forcing me to stay mad about it even longer.  No one wants that, right?
Long story short, sometimes the right card is the wrong card. 
QUESTION 2.5: Does everyone else hate the card?
A critical corollary to the last question, this is a direct reflection on the social interaction of EDH and maintaining harmony in your playgroup.  I know you love slamming Sundering Titan into play and crushing face with it, but look around the table for a minute.  Is anyone smiling as you destroy their mana base?  Any giggles of joy ?  Nope.  Instead, two people just stopped paying attention to the game and are now checking their IPhones for new email, and oh, look…the third player just punched you in the face. 
You might consider leaving this one in the binder.  Just saying.
QUESTION 2.75: Does one particularly-deserving player hate the card?
Does that dude playing the Geth deck whine like crazy when you play the card in question?
Cheat.  Play two.
QUESTION 3: Does the card fit theme or support a mechanic better than the alternatives?
Recently, I put together the Grixis tribal zombies list that won half of the Thraximundar Contest I ran last year.  Now, I recognize that Goblin Bombardment is a free sacrifice outlet and kind of the gold standard as far a red decks looking for that effect go.  But zombies don’t throw goblins at you for one damage.
QUESTION 4: Am I getting the most bang for the buck?
The classic example is Regrowth versus Eternal Witness.  One extra green mana nets you a 2/1 creature that triggers an enters-the-battlefield effect.  You can net limitless card advantage through bounce effects, whereas Regrowth is a one-and-done effect that does not beat for two or block.  
Of course, sometimes it’s not so cut-and-dried.  If you’re a little light on draw effects, is Decree Of Pain worth twice the premium of Damnation in one of your removal slots for the possibility of drawing an extra card or two?  
Which takes us to…
QUESTION 5: Am I getting the best bang for the buck?
Unmake exiles a creature at instant speed.  Swords To Plowshares does the same for a third of the cost.  Now, maybe you don’t want to be giving another player ten life, but it sucks to be short one colored mana source when your last opponent just played Ulamog.
QUESTION 6: How resilient is the card?
There was a long time where I would auto-include Coalition Relic in every deck I made.  Logic stated that Darksteel Ingot was a colorless source of mana acceleration and fixing for three, so Relic should be even better; I mean, sometimes you add a counter, untap, drop a land, and fire off a Primeval Titan on turn four, right?  
Of course, sometimes the Rhys the Redeemed player is up on mana and fires off Fracturing Gust the same turn you played Relic, and you’re suddenly stuck looking at a hand of cards that would be awesome…if you had one extra mana to play them.  Welcome to draw-go hell.
It took me a while to go a step further, but eventually I realized that I was including the card in green decks that didn’t have Cultivate in them.  Both net you one immediate extra mana source, and the potential of one additional one in the future. 
One doesn’t bend over to Oblivion Stone.
QUESTION 7: Is there a strategic advantage to using this card?
If it’s a morph, it’s always Willbender.  Everyone knows that.
So why the hell am I bothering playing it face-down for three mana plus two more to unmorph it, when I could just play Deflection instead?  I don’t forecast my play, and people might just think I’m just waiting to play Fact Or Fiction on their end-step.  Better yet, when the next guy Wraths, I don’t just bin it and die a little bit inside.
It gets better.  Can my colors support Swerve?  Nice.  How about Reroute? 
Of course, this isn’t cut-and-dried.  Maybe the extra addition of being able to target an ability is worth it.  Or maybe you really dig morph creatures, and – surprise! – it’s actually Crude Rampart
I know I’m not reinventing the wheel here.  Most people who play the format probably innately understand everything I’ve just said.  The point is that it’s important to step back once in a while and take off the autopilot.  Make the choices, instead of letting them make themselves, and – more importantly – understand why you made them.  You may discover that you’re starting to look in new directions and try new cards and strategies out.  It could be the thing that breaks you out of a slump, or leads you down a path toward play experiences that you just weren’t having before.  
Or you could just end up playing bad morph creatures, complaining about Geth, and getting punched in the face.  Your mileage may vary.


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