Last Thursday, I wrote a mailbag column.  Whenever I write something, my hope is that it will spark an intense conversation about the format, big ideas, and the general glory of Mr. P.

Sometimes this happens.  Thursday, no so much.

It’s possible that almost no one replied because I was so bloody definitive that no one had anything useful to say in response, but it’s probably more likely that that article sucked and I am a failure, and the general glory of Mr. P can go eat a bag of donuts.  Whatevs.

Win some, lose some.

So anyway, here’s my new idea: I’m going to write something and force Cass to respond to it, thereby generating a conversation about the format, big ideas, and the general glory of Mr. P.  (or something.)  Also, because I’m silly and like to cause problems, I’m going to force Cass to do this during our typical Wednesday night EDH league, so it’s entirely possible his responses will be colored by whatever GoodStuff card he’s currently losing to.  Awesome!

Here we go…

The Theme Compromise

MR P SAYS:

I like to build decks.  Back when I started playing EDH, I built a bunch of decks, and then I built a bunch of different decks once I finally figured out how I liked to play EDH, and then I built a bunch more.

Somewhere in there, EDH exploded in popularity, and this led to an interesting conundrum for me; for better or for worse, I don’t want to build the same deck as someone else.  This means that as we continued to play every week here at Worlds Apart and over in Hadley at Off the Wall, the available pool of generals I wanted to build decks around became smaller and smaller as people staked their claim to this one or that one.  Furthermore, once someone built a particular deck based around a mechanic, I generally no longer wanted to build around that mechanic any more either.

Fascinating! Basically, what this means is that I eventually reached a point where I hit a wall in my deck building.  My strategy for breaking out of this was to begin building theme decks, with the specific challenge of trying to remain adherent to the theme while also making the deck capable of playing good games, and possibly even winning.

This issue popped up last week, when I decided to try to build a Jund thing because I didn’t have one.  The last Jund deck I had together was Kresh, and I took it apart because it was the Kresh deck, which means I never played it ever and when I did I was reminded that I never played it ever because it was the Kresh deck.  I had thoughts about some of the various other Jund options for a while, but none of them really seemed to go anywhere for me: Karrthus seems fairly predictable, Darigaz seems like Karrthus (except intentionally worse),  Vaevictis Asmadi seems like Karrthus (except intentionally terrible), Sek’kuar seems basically like Savra with red, Bartel Runeaxe seems like it should have been printed at common, and Xira Arien seems a bit underwhelming across the board.

After some deliberation, I finally decided to build Xira Arien, although the real general of the deck is actually Swarmyard.  Insects, Spiders, Rats, and Squirrels, baby! Thats right – I built the Plague deck.

And this leads to my conundrum, because this deck really really really really wants Eternal Witness, and I cannot for the life of me justify it on any thematic grounds whatsoever.

Endless setup, what?

So anyway – Cass, since you talk about GoodStuff so much, here’s my question for you:

Where do you draw the line on including cards in theme decks that are there strictly because they are good?

CASS SAYS:

First off, thank you for sitting at the other table so we don’t have to play against each-other.  Second off, no thank you for loaning Asa your Animar deck.  And he’s sitting to my immediate right.  Great.

Anyway, I hate to fall back on poker terminology, but my personal philosophy is ‘Go all in or fold’ when it comes to building around theme.  If you’re going to go in on a theme deck, letting an off-theme card or two slide for the sake of performance really means that you’ve just managed to just build a normal deck with some sub-optimal cards instead.

Here’s a personal example:

I had mono-white angels built back in the day.  (Angels 1.0?  Maybe I should just say “Radiant angels tribal” based on the general at the time.) I decided it would be my first foray into a true tribal build, and as such, I steered clear of some pretty important bits and pieces.

Things like Duplicant, for example.  Not an angel.

Sensei’s Divining Top.  Not angelic enough!

Swords to Plowshares.  Angels don’t farm…

It went on and on like this.  The result?  The deck sucked terribly unless it was against the Horde.  (And this was assuming the Horde got a mediocre-to-poor opening draw.)

It played five lands, and then an angel.

Then, another land, and another angel.

Eventually, it would be playing off the top of the deck.

The lesson?  Own it, even if it sucks.

MR P SAYS:

Wait, what?  What I get out of that story is that your Angels deck sucked and would have been better with Top or Duplicant; as such, I can’t figure out if this is an argument in favor of sacrificing theme for playability, or an argument in favor of playing a bad deck that adheres to theme.  Clarify, please!

CASS SAYS:

What was that?  Sorry.  I’ve started experimenting with minor land destruction elements due to the out-of-control amount of ramp in this shop.  Animar got out to a huge lead, none of the rest of us had a good way to deal with it, and I was being bled to death by Andrew’s vampires.

I popped off a Wildfire, and now everyone hates me.

This might be a rant, but if running land destruction so that the ramp player doesn’t keep stealing wins is not kosher, I officially don’t know what the answer is anymore.

Where was I?

Oh…right.  Sticking to theme.  Here’s the thing; I typically hate theme decks.  At least, I hate building and playing them personally.  This is most likely because of Angels 1.0, although it might also be because I like to play decks that do things, and in my experience, theme decks sacrifice playability for theme…ish…ness?

Of course, maybe that’s just my theme decks, but I digress…

What I do have is a slavish adherence to my beliefs.  I think theme decks are awesome when pulled off, and I think theme decks absolutely should adhere to theme, lest they not, you know, be theme decks.

Is that confusing?

Sorry…sidetracked for a bit.  Game two, I just played Memnarch (which is sort-of a theme deck, since every card in the deck other than basic Islands references the word “Artifact” somewhere.  Artifact tribal?  Anyway…apparently it loses hard to Akroma’s Vengeance.  Good lesson there.

Here’s my personal mission statement – if you’re going theme, go theme all the way.  Otherwise, you aren’t really going theme after all.

MR P SAYS:

Haha! My evil plan of forcing you to type and play is working!

See, I’m with that, but it also means that I’m doomed to run terrible theme decks with no utility, which makes me sad.  Is there a middle ground anywhere?

Also, I’d like to take this opportunity to defend theme decks; I think theme decks are the best thing one can do to prevent the homogenization of the format.  I also contest your notion that theme decks are inherently bad, although I also recognize that SOME theme decks (hi Johan, friend of Agriculture) are terrible.

Also, see how nicely I type by ignoring the other players?

CASS SAYS:

Pro tip: It’s far easier to type while avoiding disrupting a game if you’re so terrible that you’ve already been knocked out of it.

Anyway, I guess I over-simplified above.  Some theme decks are good.  (And I’m not just talking about wizards “tribal” control decks either, you dirty cheaters!)  I think building tribal decks largely mimics the same trajectory that building normal decks takes.  You can throw something together, or build around a strong tribe (Wizards!  Dirty cheaters!!!), and your results will vary.  I also think that the extension of that is the brass ring of the format – a well-crafted and original deck that adheres to theme and still stands up to any given deck.  Especially if it’s tribal minotaurs.  (Hint: It probably isn’t.)

What’s more important is that I just mulliganed four goddamn times and I’m still stuck on three goddamn lands nine goddamn turns into the goddamn game.  Anyone want me to upload a video of me tearing my entire Karador deck in half?

MR P SAYS:

Ok, so we’re in agreement on this and you’re totally distracted by your endless terrible game experiences.  I think this experiment has come to an end, although the important part is to try to get people to chime in with their opinions on the whole “adhering to theme” thing.

I seem to suck at getting people to comment.  You want to help out by wrapping this thing up?

CASS SAYS:

Wait a minute.  We’re not done here.  Plus, I managed to finally top-deck a Forest into Cultivate, so I’m back in this, and I don’t hate my life anymore.

So we agree on theme decks maybe being good.  How do YOU feel about adhering to theme over quality cards?

More importantly, you led with talking about Eternal Witness in Xira Arien.  What happened with that?

MR P SAYS:

See, I tried to save you there.  Oh well.

So The Plague Deck problem that started this all…it desperately wants Eternal Witness, and it’s not running it.  This is my problem: I’m willing to strictly adhere to theme at the expense of deck quality.

I’m glad you approve of this philosophy!

CASS SAYS:

Good man!  How’s it working out for you so far?

MR P SAYS:

Well, the Plague Deck has won two of the three games it has played, so apparently it doesn’t miss Eternal Witness as much as I feared (although none of those games were against particularly powerful decks).

I’m currently playing the Hell deck, and it’s losing pretty badly, but that’s mainly because it has no enchantment removal (which it wouldn’t have anyway unless I wanted to slot in Spine or Ulamog, which I don’t want to run to begin with.)

Actually, there’s an update: the Hell deck is currently getting there, mainly because of Grave Betrayal and the general lack of enchantment removal in this game.

Anyway, I would say that overall my suite of theme decks is pretty far at the “low power” end of the spectrum, but most of them are somewhat to very fun to play, and they lead to interesting games.  Isn’t that the point of EDH?

CASS SAYS:

That raises an interesting point, actually.  You know that thing I’ve been discussing about my Momir Vig list and considering metagames when building decks?  This is a valid point in favor of that.  Who needs Eternal Witness when the play environment is as big of a qualifier as what goes into your deck?

And that speaks to the power level of the format, which can (and likely should) dictate the power level of the decks you play.  However, I can’t really focus on that at the moment, because the kid you loaned your frigging Rith deck to has only been playing this game a month, but is completely kicking our collective asses right now anyway.

What’d you just say about the power levels of your decks again?

MR P SAYS:

Good lord, this article is going to be long.

To clarify, what I said was relative to the power level of my THEME decks; I have some pretty strong non-theme decks, like the one that just attacked you for 70. (And to be fair, the Rith Tokens deck is absolutely a relic from the days before I was committed to building unique decks; I would never build that deck now.)

I suppose if you’re even considering playing a theme deck, you are acknowledging that your playgroup is the sort that is casual enough to allow theme decks, and I agree that the ultimate determining factor is what your playgroup will allow.  Still, this to me is less about what other people think and more about the restrictions you are willing to put on yourself.  I don’t think anyone would really care if I was running Eternal Witness, but it totally matters to me.

CASS SAYS:
I’m totally on a page with that.  Ultimately, it’s up to the individual as to what constitutes a theme deck; if ‘theme’ means ‘all of my creatures are minotaurs, but my spells are fair game’, that’s totally fine if that’s how you access it.  If it means, “My mono-white Angels deck is terrible, but every single card has an angels reference!”…well, that’s great too.  The thing that theme decks do seem to do better than other decks is instill a little bit of extra excitement and enjoyment in the owner.

(Side note: Good lord…apparently you just lose when playing Emperor and the person who needs to be putting pressure on the five-color planeswalker deck to keep the damn things from going infinite is stuck hopelessly on three lands.  Good to know.)

Anyway, maybe you got smoked, but you sure did activate Didgeridoo, and that’s worth a laugh and a smile.  At the end of the day, that’s really what this format is all about, right?

MR P SAYS:

Exactly.  Play to have fun, hope to win.

That was fun.  Let’s do that again.  You start the next one.

CASS SAYS:

You got it.
—>MR. P