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In Development – Clarity of Purpose

 

It’s round five of a PTQ for Honolulu. You’re playing Faeries against Sunburst Gifts, and after a long marathon run up to the midgame, you’ve just cast Vendilion Clique with an untapped Riptide Laboratory ready to go. Your opponent lets Clique resolve, then with its trigger on the stack, channels Arashi.

Fair enough. You activate Riptide Lab to pick up your Clique.

He channels a second Arashi, killing your Clique, and untaps into Gifts Ungiven for the win.

This has probably never happened to you. Honestly, it’s never happened to me, either, because I was the guy running the Gifts deck with triple maindeck Arashi.

Welcome to In Development.

Roughly half of this game for me is, in a very real “this is where I have my fun” sense, about evaluating cards, building decks, and then developing those decks over time. It’s actually frustrating for me to consider playing an off-the-shelf build at a PTQ. That’s not a knock on playing well-known designs, but rather my compulsion to not only try to be creative, but to deploy that creativity. Beyond that, I think Conley has also addressed in compelling detail the edge gained by playing decks of your own design, so I won’t expand on that idea any further except to add that there’s a true joy in watching your opponent pause to read your cards. [Jon Loucks also has a take on this subject. -Riki]

In this column, my focus will be on deck design and development. Rather than advising an optimum deck of the week, I like to stick with a design for a while, refining it as I, not coincidentally, refine my understanding of how it plays and my Magic play in general. I may run a couple of decks in parallel, or sometimes a couple of formats (you can expect to see me discussing Extended and Standard during the next Extended PTQ season, for example), but the goal is to build a deck and take it out for a succession of spins, having some fun and learning more in the process.

Clearly, this is a curious time to be talking about designing and developing a deck. We’re in the penultimate week of Lorwyn-Shards Standard, and while I could tell you more about the Elspeth-centric deck I’ve been using to take on our last run of PTQs and other big events, that hardly seems helpful. At the same time, I tend to avoid making deck design predictions when I still know only half the cards in a set. Instead, I’m going to lead in with a little philosophy, discussing my approach to deck design and how that impacts my card valuations.

What does your deck do?

My decks begin with any number of clear inspirations. That five-letter adjective is important, as the one thing that I think predestines a deck to fail is when it’s just a thrown-together collection of cards, good cards or otherwise. This is why I think it’s helpful to name decks, and to give them names that are in some way mnemonic of the true defining features of the deck. So “Five-Color Control” is a better name than “Quick’n Toast,” inasmuch as it at least vaguely clues you in about what’s actually going on with the design. Similarly, I preferred “Sunburst Gifts” over “Gifts Rock,” because people have a pretty fuzzy idea what “Rock” means as a name, but I knew that the point of my deck was to abuse Gifts, and Etched Oracle was one way I intended to do so. Clarity of purpose is a good place to start in deck design.

To put it another way, you should have a logline for your deck. In screenwriting, the logline is the one-sentence summary of your screenplay that successfully conveys to the casual reader what your movie is about. Functionally, it’s the TV listing for the screenplay, but in practice, it’s also the one-sentence pitch that lets an executive decide if they want to pay you actual money for your work. It is the essence of your complex idea. Some writers hate having to distill a hundred or more pages into one sentence, but there’s an important point here – if you can write a logline for your screenplay, or your novel, or even your deck, it means you know what it’s essentially about.

Keeping clarity of purpose in mind, there are a lot of ways to think about initiating a deck design. Sometimes, it boils down to the deceptively simple sounding goal I had in mind for the last Extended season – “abuse Gifts.” I had this card that did things I enjoyed doing in a game, and I wanted to create a framework in which I could maximize its game-winning potential. Running with the screenplay analogy, my logline was “Live to play Gifts Ungiven, win the game” (you can imagine saying that in the same tone as “Save the cheerleader, save the world” if you like). This set the framework for that deck, which was that it needed to survive various early game shenanigans, and needed to have a Gifts kit that included both survival mechanisms and finishers. It was also when I deviated from the core purpose of the deck – dropping from four to three copies of Gifts in a moment of doubt – that I ran into trouble.

My recent Standard deck of choice began from the somewhat more complex concept of “win through unconventional card advantage.” My desire to explore this idea came from observing Lorwyn-Alara Standard and seeing that the essential element most successful archetypes had in common was card advantage. This may seem like a given, but it’s far from it. If we roll back a couple years to the first Pro Tour: Honolulu, we see a finals featuring two decks with very little card advantage, including a winner running three Auras. But in the now-waning Standard season, even the aggro decks exploit significant card advantage, through the axes of cascade or many-in-one creatures. There is nothing quite so nauseating as clearing the board and having the Kithkin player come back at you with yet another Cloudgoat Ranger. Observing all this informed me that even were I to choose an aggro strategy I needed to lean heavily on card advantage. My desire to avoid off-the-shelf builds then naturally led to my ‘logline’ of “win through unconventional card advantage,” and that’s how I ended up running four-packs of Garruk, Elspeth, and Primal Command all in the same deck.

I’ve found inspiration in attacking a certain metagame, playing a given card, mimicking an older design, or any number of other random reasons. The key to designs that have the potential for success is always whether or not I can succinctly explain what the deck is meant to do. In this way, deck design is much like screenplay writing, technical proposal development, and business model preparation – if you can’t succinctly explain what it’s about, you probably don’t know. And that’s never a good thing.

Card choice

Now that we know what our deck is about, we need to select its elements. We need to find those means of unconventional card advantage, or develop the framework that will keep us alive long enough to EOT a Gifts and take over. And if you, like me, also enjoy watching your opponent read your cards because they no longer recall what Etched Oracle (or, indeed, Knight of the Reliquary) does, then that means you need to be able to figure out not only which cards are cool and serve your needs in the abstract, but which cards are actually good.

Naturally, there’s no such thing as absolute value, on cards or anything else. We can clearly track the relative nature of card valuation as we flip between formats. Wild Nacatl is okay in Block, poor in Standard, a beating in Extended, and irrelevant in Legacy [Actually, Zoo with Wild Nacatl took down the Legacy 5K in Charlotte. –Riki, with some rare metagame intel] and that second valuation may well change sharply in a couple weeks. Similarly, perennial flamewar generator Browbeat is horrid almost everywhere, but was the right card for the job in Yokohama ’07, where it turned up as a four-of in two different aggro decks in the top eight. So it goes. Still, an experienced player can look at some subset of cards and think, “I will never play that in a Constructed event.” So what’s going on there?

Conveniently, we get to return to the idea of clarity. Just as a good screenwriter can succinctly explain what their movie is about, so too can they explain why each and every scene in that movie exists. Similarly, the proposal writer can point to each figure in her technical presentation and explain why it needs to be there and what it does. Even abstracting these pieces from their eventual wholes, you can usually understand what the element is meant to do. You can experiment with this. Pick a scene in a movie in isolation, and you can probably figure out what the scene does – assuming the scene is well written.

Layering this idea onto cards, we can try to look at individual cards and figure out what they do. Sometimes this feels easy – it doesn’t necessarily take a lot of thought to figure out that Lightning Bolt is about damage and removal, and Runeclaw Bear is about attacking and blocking. These are very basic ideas of function, of course – in more nuanced way, Lightning Bolt is about tempo, whether that’s by setting your opponent back or levering them one turn closer to death. Either way, it’s still damage and removal. Other cards are more complex, but the essential idea is the same.

Card evaluation then is a matter of deciding if the card is good enough at doing what it’s meant to do, and if it’s the best option in that arena. Runeclaw Bear is a decent attacker and blocker; dealing 2 damage a turn for an initial two-mana investment is actually pretty good. Yet we intuitively know we are incredibly unlikely to actually play it in a Constructed deck. This is because when we’re looking for a card that is about attacking and blocking, we know there are better options in the same price range as the Bears (Qasali Pridemage and Putrid Leech, to name two). Similarly, every [card Serra Angel]five-mana white creature[/card] has to justify its existence in your deck in the face of the mighty force that is Baneslayer Angel.

Keep in mind that there can be more than one purpose for a card, even in the distilled sense described above. I’ve heard Elspeth repeatedly described as a defensive card, which is an assignment I understand –- after all, she makes an endless supply of guys – but is simultaneously not the role I assign her to. To me, Elspeth is fundamentally a tool of offense – she makes guys and makes guys better – and I evaluate her value as a card in any deck I build largely on that basis.

This comparative valuation is the exercise that we try to carry out sans play experience as a new set is slowly revealed to us in the weeks ahead of the prerelease. Which cards will be good? Which cards should we pick up now? Which cards are overhyped and will drop off in price later? It’s a more difficult exercise, to be sure, since it operates on incomplete information. Prior to the Prerelease, we don’t even have the full card list to work with. We also don’t have a well-defined environment to plug them into, although we do have a number of good educated guesses to give us a framework. Given this shaky basis, our goal in looking at new cards is to try and figure out what they do in the essential sense described above, and then evaluate them on that basis.

There are some cards I have my eye on in Zendikar. I’ll endeavor to explain what I think they do, and why I’m interested in them based on this evaluation. I’m going to stick to the cards that have been formally spoiled as of the writing of this article. I’m also going to sidestep the “gimmes,” those cards that are clearly useful, such as the fetchlands and Day of Judgment.

Iona, Shield of Emeria
The goal with Iona is clearly “lock the opponent out of their game plan, win the game.” Decks have an altogether unsurprising tendency to have their entire removal suite live within one color. Get Iona on the field and you minimally have a 7/7, Flying, un-removable-with-spells beatstick. Awesome. Of course, she costs a less-than-awesome nine mana. Although nine-mana creatures have seen play in Block, it’s not unreasonable to be dubious about the likelihood of that occurring in Standard, so our only recourse with Iona is reanimation. Right now, that leaves us dead in the water, with only [card]Rise from the Grave[/card] coming in at a clunky five mana to help us out. This in turn informs us that Iona will be good if, and only if, the remaining cards in Zendikar (or perhaps Worldwake) serve up at least one other decent reanimation spell”¦or, rather less likely, an archetype appears that will naturally and consistently make it to nine mana with us in a solid enough position that a 7/7 with associated lockout effect will win us the game.

Luminarch Ascension
Our first-blush evaluation of this card boils down to “stay alive for a handful of turns, win the game.” I think a closer pass reveals a more complex essential nature: perhaps “stay alive for a handful of turns, disrupt the opposing game plan, win the game.” It’s unreasonable to imagine that players will walk into an Ascension-bearing metagame with no way to disrupt the Ascension plan, but at the same time, their need to pack the capacity to reply to Ascension necessarily disrupts their own game plan. This makes Ascension a game-changer, and for its cost, that is tremendously valuable.

Pitfall Trap
This will serve as a negative example – a card I’m not excited about. Pitfall Trap declares itself as “kill one nonflyer, possibly at a discount.” The discount is nice, but even at the cut-rate one-mana price, the inability to kill a flyer is a losing proposition in the current environment. What Pitfall Trap does is, at least by my best current evaluation, not worth displacing other removal options that won’t see me getting my head kicked in by a Baneslayer.

Nissa Revane
Nissa is an interesting case, in that she, like many of the planeswalkers to date, can be “pitched” in a number of ways. You might evaluate Nissa as “build up loyalty, explode with elves for the win.” In contrast, my first evaluation of Nissa makes her a bit of a one-trick pony, albeit a pony with a good trick, which I’d evaluate as “produce an infinite supply of 2/3s.” This obviously ignores Nissa’s second and third abilities, but I’m happy to do so, since her first ability involves making threats while gaining loyalty, which we’ve already seen is quite powerful. My one large reservation about Nissa is her low starting loyalty, as she’s the only planeswalker to date who can’t move out of Bolt range immediately after hitting the battlefield. Since being easily killed directly disrupts the “one dude per turn” game plan, that’s a serious checkmark against Nissa being as good as she might otherwise be.

I’m looking forward to learning about the other hundred-odd cards in Zendikar to see which way my card valuations are pushed. Will it be “another good reanimation spell and game on” for Iona, or will I just be picking up a single copy for my friend’s daughter, named Iona, to chew on? Which cards are you looking forward to? Do you have a clear idea what they’re going to be doing, and how will they serve that goal?

Next week, I’ll be looking at nascent deck creation in the new Shards-Zendikar Standard, probably with a tip of the hat toward exploring the tools I use during deck design as well.

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