Breaking Through – The Best of the Best

Another Pro Tour and, in fact, the last World Championships as we know it is again upon us. Testing has been a lot of work, fun, arguing, and acknowledging points from others but, as always, we are slowly making progress while holed up in Oakland. Because we have so many minds working on both the featured formats, there is often a lot of differing opinions, which is welcomed, but it is certainly interesting to see how some of the other guys arrive at some of the conclusions that they do.

It has made me reflect on some of the ways that I look to build decks. While “rogue” deck building may be the classification most people are most comfortable using for me, that really does not describe HOW I build the way that I do. I have talked at length about how I like to attack a format from an angle that most closely resembles a “haterator” style, but that is not the only way I look to build. One of my favorite ways to assemble decks is to look at the format and assess what I feel are the best cards of any given color for that format. Yes, these cards are often derived from a “hate” style, but the overall deck building method is quite different.

You see, if you can successfully pinpoint the best cards of a few different colors and those cards work well together across the color barrier, you could very easily be half to two thirds of the way toward arriving at a valid deck. Add in some pieces to tie all of the stuff you have pulled out and a viable deck may be what is left. Of course, it is not just a matter of finding the best cards of each color and combining 2 to 3 of those colors though, as often times, the cards just do not gel well enough.

For example, if cards like [card]Oblivion Ring[/card], [card]Doom Blade[/card], [card]Lightning Bolt[/card], [card]Beast Within[/card], and [card]Volition Reins[/card] happened to be the best cards of each color, you really couldn’t just jam all of those, or even some of them, into a deck and call it a day. There are no win conditions among that crew, no card advantage, etc. You have some premium removal, but if that truly was the actual best cards of each color with nothing even remotely close in power level, your search would end there. Luckily, rarely is that the case though, and you end up with something more evenly rounded out. If say, [card]Oblivion Ring[/card] and [card]Sun Titan[/card] were the best White cards, and [card]Consecrated Sphinx[/card] and [card]Volition Reins[/card] were the best Blue cards, you still could not look to combine Black and Red to much success, so be careful about that.

Other factors need to be considered, like curve and overall strategy, but assuming all of these things line up in a way that makes sense and works well together, you could very easily emerge with a solid deck idea.

The Background Check

In order to even see if you can get anywhere with this style of deck, you need to do some legwork to start with. You need to do enough research to have a good idea of what the best cards of each color actually are, and taking shortcuts here drastically limits the effectiveness of the strategy. If you were to just use cards off of the top of your head for example, not only would there be a heavy bias toward some colors and strategies, but you would likely forget cards that you would otherwise endorse, not to mention cards that never would enter your thought process in the first place that lie deep in the depths of Gatherer.

Of course, using the opinions of people you respect is perfectly reasonable to either check your ideas/list of cards, or help create it in the first place, but do not expect the cards they arrive at to be completely flush. Doing some independent research, checking out articles of respected authors, and using local “pet” cards can all help contribute to you arriving at a solid list of cards.

The List

One you have done your homework and arrived at a pool of cards, it is now time to do some trimming. Some colors will be 20 or so cards deep, which is fine if you truly think all 20 of those cards are actually deserving of being on that list, but it is more likely that you were a bit generous in your card choices and some of the list is clearly worse than others. Use your better judgment here and trim off the stuff that does not belong.

If you can keep every color between 5 and 10 cards, you have the best shot at actually arriving at a good deck. The 20th best red card is probably much worse than the best red card, so if you are looking to arrive at a deck by combining a bunch of 20th bests with each other, you will not be staying true to the integrity of the system. While the system is far from perfect and far from universally applicable, being too generous with your card selections will only make matters worse.

The Build

Now that you have created and shaped your list of cards, you have to start experimenting with various combinations of cards. Again, you cannot just blindly combine any two colors, as there should be a set of guidelines you use to make sure those cards work together, but in general, more liberal combinations are better than conservative ones. Here is a rough list of guidelines I would want to look at before seeing a list through to completion:

-Color commitments compared to mana fixing availability
-Curve considerations
-Synergy considerations
-Strategy conflicts, such as an aggressive card mixing with a control card
-Card type conflicts

There are obviously a lot of other considerations you can and should make, but those are a good batch to help quality check the builds you arrive at, if nothing else.

The goal here is to end up with a deck that has inherently more powerful plays, as you are just drawing and playing the best that the format has to offer turn after turn. You will never arrive at a deck like U/W Humans through this method, as things like [card]Doomed Traveler[/card] and [card]Fiend Hunter[/card] are going to be pretty far off your radar, but some control decks, or midrange power decks, like Jund, can easily be found by going through these steps.

Again, you cannot simply expect the entire deck to be composed of nothing but cards off of your list, you will need to round out your curve/removal/finishers/ etc with other options that may be worse in the abstract, but go well with your strategy.

My lists

While I am a big fan of giving players the tools to get a job done rather than doing it for them, I feel like this type of article is not nearly as helpful without some sort of example to back it up. With that, here are my lists for the best cards of each color in Standard. I have kept to my guidelines laid out above and approached this using my own opinion, so do not be alarmed if you list does not match up well with my own. Note that within each category, there is no particular order chosen for the cards.


[card]Day of Judgment[/card]
[card]Oblivion Ring[/card]
[card]Mirran Crusader[/card]
[card]Grand Abolisher[/card]
[card]Hero of Bladehold[/card]


[card]Phantasmal Image[/card]
[card]Forbidden Alchemy[/card]
[card]Delver of Secrets[/card]
[card]Mana Leak[/card]
[card]Snapcaster Mage[/card]


[card]Doom Blade[/card]
[card]Unburial Rites[/card]
[card]Curse of Death’s Hold[/card]
[card]Liliana of the Veil[/card]
[card]Grave Titan[/card]


[card]Arc Trail[/card]
[card]Brimstone Volley[/card]
[card]Chandra’s Phoenix[/card]
[card]Gut Shot[/card]


[card]Primeval Titan[/card]
[card]Dungrove Elder[/card]
[card]Garruk, Primal Hunter[/card]
[card]Birds of Paradise[/card]
[card]Green Sun’s Zenith[/card]


[card]Wurmcoil Engine[/card]
[card]Sword of Feast and Famine[/card]
[card]Solemn Simulacrum[/card]


[card]Inkmoth Nexus[/card]
[card]Kessig Wolf Run[/card]
[card]Moorland Haunt[/card]
[card]Nephalia Drownyard[/card]
[card]Ghost Quarter[/card]

I restricted all of my lists to just 5 cards, as going any further might give away some of my secrets (and with Worlds coming in only a week, we can’t have that now can we!), but I think those examples give a pretty solid start to where I want to be going with this style of deck building. Some of those cards came from simple play testing results, while others came from research and popularity. Most of those cards are pretty popular and would make most top 5s, which is why it is important to expand out beyond 5 a little bit to see where your list differs from others.

At this point, I would begin piecing together cards from one color with another and seeing where things best fit. These example lists actually allow me to demonstrate some of the principles I explained above.

For example, if I were to combine cards like [card]Grand Abolisher[/card] and [card]Mirran Crusader[/card] with things like [card]Curse of Death’s Hold[/card] and [card]Grave Titan[/card], the strategy disparity would clearly not make much sense. Meanwhile, while cards like [card garruk, primal hunter]Garruk[/card], [card]Dungrove Elder[/card], [card]Curse of Death’s Hold[/card], and [card]Grave Titan[/card] may fit together strategically, they just don’t make sense from a mana perspective, which is almost as important. These incompatibility issues should be fairly straightforward and require minimum amounts of common sense to detect and fix, but it is important that you do keep them in mind, as simply combining powerful cards is not enough.


I tend to favor this deck building approach the most under a few specific circumstances. The first is when you have a lack of time to test or prepare for a tournament yet are dead set on running something of your own design. By showing up with a deck that is comprised primarily of powerful cards, even if your deck as a whole does not really make the grade, individual cards will be good enough to get you out of tough spots, elevating your overall performance. Compare this to a deck that is dependent on a lot of internal synergy. That type of deck, taken cold into a tournament, could have wildly varying results. If you built the deck well enough, you may do well, but if even a piece or two is improperly implemented, the entire strategy can fall through without individual powerful cards to pull you out of any type of hole.

The other time I like to turn to this method, and it is more noteworthy as it involved actual preparation, is in a wide open format where you cannot legitimately expect to play any deck more than once over the course of a tournament. With so many viable decks running around, it is too difficult to effectively hate them all out. This is most commonly seen in Legacy for example. It is at this point that you can skim through the color options and hand pick powerful cards to ensure powerful plays during each stage of the game. A few [card]Force of Will[/card]s here, a [card]Swords to Plowshares[/card] there, and a [card]Dark Confidant[/card] and your deck is at least doing something powerful, despite not having a specific target in its sight.

Wrap Up

Although there are certainly plenty of other types of deck building styles to use at other times, there is a time and a place for this type, so it is a good one to have in your repertoire Even if you do not ultimately end up building a deck through this method exclusively, it can also be used in tandem with other methods to have a more well-rounded approach to a format. Going through and identifying what the most powerful things you can be doing will help you to narrow down some card choices for any deck you could run using any other method, and it also gives you an idea of what other people might be considering for the big day.

It is quite fun to compare your lists with your friends’ lists and have discussions about why they feel a certain card deserves a slot over another as well. This exercise can generate a lot of conversation, which leads to more brewing and more broadening of the ideas of the group, which is always a good thing. As always, thanks for reading, and I will see you in San Diego!

Conley Woods


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