Personal Expression in Deck-Building

I have been having a bad time with Magic lately.

I don’t mean to say the game has gotten worse, or that I’m getting tired of it. I just mean I’ve been having bad games of Commander, feeling salty at my opponents, and feeling bad about myself as a player. For a while I thought it was bad luck, but I took a step back and looked at things objectively, and I’ve come to realize that it’s because of the way I build decks. I want to share what I’ve learned with you, so you can avoid or overcome similar pitfalls.

The Tribal Trap

The first thing I want to talk about is designing decks for their novelty; I carry a lot of pride in my ability to create decks that I feel I am the first to create. I’m free to do this because the people I play with also enjoy creative brewing, and they don’t simply build the strongest decks that they can. However, It’s important not to let a novelty idea overtake your entire deck, or you won’t enjoy actually playing it. That’s what has been happening to me for the past few weeks; my latest decks have been pretty high-concept, and those concepts didn’t lead to good deck construction.

The easiest way I can think to illustrate this idea is with tribal decks. When I’m designing a tribal-style deck around a creature type with little or no actual tribal support, my first instinct is to grab every “choose-your-own-tribe” card there is (Kindred Discovery, Metallic Mimic, Vanquisher’s Banner, etc), followed by every card in that tribe. Unfortunately, if the tribe is not well supported, those cards may be very far below the power level of the “usual suspects” you’d play in the same colors.

Amazo, only blobbier

For example, I recently tried to build blue/green Mutants tribal by grabbing every half-decent Mutant card that exists and cramming it into a deck. I had Novijen Sages in the deck for card draw; Mutants have a clear +1/+1 counter theme, and Novijen Sages provide card draw using those counters as a resource. But six converted mana cost for a creature whose ability also costs mana and counters is not a good value. The fact that the Sages are Mutants doesn’t make them worth six mana, even with the support of “Universal Tribal” cards.

Zameck Guildmage isn’t a Mutant, but it has nearly the same card draw ability as the Sages and its converted mana cost is only two. The Guildmage also has an additional activated ability, which helps with the Mutant tribe’s +1/+1 counter strategy. In this case, the Guildmage’s value and synergy with the rest of the deck far outweighs the fact that it isn’t a Mutant.

This kind of reasoning is what I struggle with the most: If I can’t load a deck full of Mutants, and most of my best cards aren’t Mutants, what’s the point of playing Mutants tribal at all? The answer is different for every “novelty” deck, but asking some simple questions can help find the answer: What do I want to see the deck do? Why did I want to build the deck in the first place? I’ve decided that for this deck, what I really wanted was to make the Mutant creature type mean something when Master Biomancer makes all my creatures into Mutants. Unfortunately, Master Biomancer can’t be my Commander, and a Commander deck that relies on just one creature is not a viable option, so I had to change my expectations.

Tentacle cloak, check. Sawfish arm, check. Shoulder gills, check. Ready for action!

“Mutants tribal” is now a Simic-guild-themed deck which I call “Applied Biomancy.” It’s loaded with creatures that gain and use +1/+1 counters in a variety of ways. Most of them aren’t Mutants, but Master Biomancer‘s mutations are always a huge help when I can find him. The Mutants who are in the deck always pull their weight, and in my mind creatures with Evolve or Adapt might as well be Mutants too. It’s not “Mutant tribal” at all anymore, but it scratches that evolution/mutation itch while also being effective and fun to play.

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Well-Known =/= Boring

Another trap I fall into when building a deck is the idea that if a card or strategy is powerful enough to be well-known, the deck it’s in will be boring. For example, I shy away from Zombie lords like Death Baron and Undead Warchief because if someone is playing a deck with a Zombie theme, those cards are almost guaranteed to be in that list. Unless the Zombie theme is extremely minor, they’re “obvious includes,” and that expectation makes me want very much not to play them.

I don’t have anything funny to say, Muldrotha is perfect and YOU CAN’T CHANGE MY MIND

I recently rebuilt my Muldrotha, the Gravetide deck for the umpteenth time and decided to go for a Zombies subtheme. The deck is primarily a draw-and-discard deck, looking to load the graveyard with inexpensive permanents to play using Muldrotha. I was already playing Zombie Infestation, Bone Miser, Forgotten Creation, From Under the Floorboards, and Underrealm Lich, so I decided to build even more of a Zombie theme into the deck.

When I told (Playable Magic author) Jordan about this idea, he quickly offered me his array of zombie lords to help me out. I said “No, I’m not building that kind of deck.” It ended up as a Zombie themed deck, which I had cut non-Zombies out of for no reason. Suffice it to say, it was relatively unsuccessful and frustrating to play. I begrudgingly added the Zombie lords to the deck, at Jordan’s insistence, and tried again…

There’s no WAY those sub-arms are useful

Lo and behold! The deck felt great to play. My Zombie tokens from Zombie Infestation and Bone Miser could hold their own against other players’ creatures, the discount provided by Undead Warchief let me cast an extra spell from my graveyard several times, and my “utility Zombies” like Quagmire Druid could be viable combatants if I needed them to be. In summary, the “boring” lords didn’t turn my intricate contraption into a boring aggro deck; they simply tied together the cards I was already using. They provided an in-game reason for the flavor-based choices that I had already made.

In essence, the point that I want to make here is that well-known good cards don’t make your deck less interesting; they make your interesting-but-inefficient deck better, more fun to play, and (believe it or not) more interesting! Don’t be a snob like me. Play mostly good cards, and you’ll be able to stay in the game for long enough to pull off that dumb, terrible, silly combo you’ve always dreamed of.

Is VS Does: Know the Difference

It’s a metaphor for the pointlessness of my decks

When I have an idea for a deck, that idea is normally for what the deck will be rather than what it will do. For example, When I decided to build “Mutants tribal,” that was my entire idea: Mutants, in a tribal deck. I built the entire deck using cards that were either A) Mutant or B) generic tribal. I managed to create the entire deck before I realized that it was unlikely to do anything.

Similarly, when the Muldrotha deck pivoted to a Zombie theme, at first it was purely in flavor. The alterations made it a “Zombie deck,” but it didn’t do anything Zombie-specific. It wasn’t until I added the lords that the Zombies actually mattered. A deck won’t be fun to play if it’s just a slapdash pile of on-theme cards; top-down flavor is still the way I conceive of most of my decks, but the flavor has to translate into a game plan or else the deck will be a disappointment.

This idea isn’t just limited to a deck’s flavor, either. I’m working on a new deck with The Scorpion God as its commander, and I am constantly fighting the urge to limit the deck to exclusively cards with the text “-1/-1 counter” on them somewhere. There are enough cards like that to fill out a deck if I were to try, but that kind of restriction would lead to a bad deck. Cutting a bad creature with wither to add a Commander staple like Burnished Hart or Chaos Warp will make the deck more fun to play, because the better on-theme cards in the deck will be supported/protected by those “off-theme” staples. It feels like a compromise at first, but when your clever theme has a real impact on nearly every game, you’ll realize it’s the better way to build.

Thanks for Coming to My TED Talk

I know this article isn’t going to resonate with everyone, but I hope that it’s at least been an entertaining read. If you do identify with anything I talked about here, please reach out via Twitter or on our Discord server, and tell me all about your ill-advised attempts! I’ll talk bad combos and unsupported tribes with anyone, anytime.

Thanks again for reading, and tune in next time when I make a Muldrotha deck that really does something for real this time guys, I swear.

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