The idea behind building your own duel decks is to get the greatest possible bang for your buck. The goal is to maximize fun, excitement, learning, and social connection while minimizing spending. The means is to take one collection and build a matchup between two balanced decks. This gives you an option for a competitive outlet that intentionally gets away from the “Magic is too expensive” battle of keeping up with the top-tier Joneses.
From my own experiments and absorbed knowledge from Magic R&D I’ve come up with a short list of game play goals which maximize the experience.
Duel Decks Game Play Goals
- Uncertainty Up to the Last Turn
Balance is the most important thing as we’re building a matchup, not two independent decks. The matchup should be balanced—that is, it should be fair. Either deck should have a chance, and both players should feel that their chances are similar with either deck. So decks should be adjusted up and down in power level to affect the balance of the matchup.
An unbalanced matchup is where one deck is more likely to win than the other. This can be problematic, as no one really wants to take the losing side and eventually players lose interest in the matchup. We want to avoid an unbalanced matchup.
Interactivity is important. By interactivity I mean that both players get to make decisions that affect the other player. So interactivity between players is important. The decks should feel like they’re playing each other, but the players should also feel like they’re playing each other.
An uninteractive matchup is where one deck basically combos off, or is unstoppable for whatever reason. Players quickly lose interest in uninteractive matchups because it feels like there’s no choice. People like choices.
Novelty greatly extends the life span of the duel decks. By novelty I mean that each game should feel new and different. The way to do this is with lots of 1-ofs that provide unique and different effects, so each game is likely to be very different from any other game.
A repetitive matchup is where games start to feel all the same or very similar. This mostly comes about from too many 4-ofs. Too much repetition makes players bored and want to do something else. So repetitive matchups are to be avoided.
Consistency is important to take some of the early game chance out of the matchup to allow late game choices to flourish. What I really mean by consistency is not consistency of plan, but consistency of mana. Decks should have the right kind of mana and the right kind of lands when they need them. So in the interest of consistency decks should have good mana—4-of multicolor lands are encouraged.
Inconsistency in the land base can be a real fun killer. Players want novelty, but not novelty in mana screw and mana flood. That feels bad. Chance is great, but not in the very early game stages to decide an entire match.
Uncertainty Until the Last Turn
A final component to a great matchup is uncertainty until the last turn. It’s fun when the game comes down to the last draw, the last spell, the last mana, the last attack, the last life point. The tension of uncertainty keeps players engaged until the very end.
When the outcome of a game is certain long before the game actually ends, players check out. The tension moves to whether or not to concede. Concession is bad for both players. The main cause of this is overwhelming card advantage, so too many pure card advantage spells are to be avoided.
Duel Decks – Izzet vs. Golgari
When presenting the following lists, I am not recommending that you copy these decks, or even the style of these decks. I’m sharing these only to give you an idea of how you MIGHT build a matchup.
I wanted to recreate the classic Izzet vs. Golgari matchup from my own large Modern collection. The result is a very high powered matchup of haymakers back and forth, with the game hopefully determined on the battlefield up until the last turn.
You’ll notice that neither deck is really synergistic, and I didn’t include that as especially important in the matchup. My feeling is that interactivity and individual synergy are somewhat at odds, and the results were confirmed when the disruption of the Golgari deck neutered the synergy of the Izzet deck. So I moved both decks to play with individually high powered cards.
However, you might find that two high powered synergy decks make for a great matchup. I wasn’t able to do it this time, but I think I might try again and see what I can come up with.
If you’re interested in seeing how these decks matchup, I have a video series out on the matchup here. Also in this video set are power level adjustments and reasonings behind them.
I hope you find this exercise useful, and I encourage you to build your own duel decks. It is something you can already do with your existing collection to create really fun play experiences with good friends. I highly recommend it, and I’m excited to hear what you might do with the idea!