Rogue Report – A Better Way to Build


Today I’m going to let you in on a secret to building a better deck. The old way of building decks, or at least my old way, is pretty archaic. Most lists start in the back of a school notebook or on a napkin at a restaurant after scrubbing out of a PTQ. The worthy decks graduate into proxies or Magic Online for testing, and that’s usually where they live until the real cards are assembled a few days before the event. Sideboard plans are usually assembled on the car or plane ride to the site, or in the hotel room the night before.

It’s been said before but it’s worth saying again: our sideboarding could be better. I’ve often found myself in a tournament knowing that my game one is good, but that my sideboard or sideboarding choices are holding me back. When I was playing a deck I built the night before (like Mishra in Time Spiral Block), my sideboard has always been lacking. When I picked up some net deck (like Five-Color Control in old Standard) I knew that my sideboard was likely good, I just had no idea how to use it. Obviously knowing my deck better and knowing the matchups better would have helped immensely. However, the biggest lesson of all I had yet to learn.

That lesson came from none other than Dan Hanson. He’s a local (Seattle) player that has continuously put up results. Not only does Dan do well, but those that play his decks do well. He doesn’t exactly “break” the format, but he builds a solid deck. If he hands you a list you know the mana is going to work. (I still have dreams about his Doran deck with a beautiful manabase fueled by Gilt-Leaf Palace and Nameless Inversion.) Dan was my partner in crime when I played the World of Warcraft TCG for a time, and it was then that I saw into his world. Dan had one of the greatest minds when it came to building a World of Warcraft deck that I’ve ever seen.

What Dan brought to Magic was his idea of looking at a matchup based on the ideal 60 cards, instead of on a sideboard. The idea is very big-picture. Instead of thinking what you can sideboard in and what you should be sideboarding out, Dan starts with the ideal 60 card deck. If you knew you were going to play against Zoo, what 60 cards would you bring to the table? By thinking this way about every matchup it becomes easier to see the common crossovers and start to form a maindeck and sideboard. The beautiful part is that you wont be in a position where you’re over-sideboarding for a certain matchup, and when you actually go to sideboard you’ll know how just because you’ll be “fixing” your deck back to the ideal 60.

This is where the tool comes in. Dan, being a pretty smart guy, created an Excel spreadsheet to help him build decks. In this spreadsheet he has the deck makeup for each matchup, the total 75 cards of the deck, and the maindeck and sideboard numbers. There’s even a handy mana calculator that explains where his smooth manabases come from.

The first time I used this file was with the Martyr of Sands deck Zaiem and I worked on last season. Zaiem had used the file before, and told me that we should be doing it with all of our decks, and he’s probably right. The deck immediately improved. First, the manabase got a big upgrade. How I ever cast turn three Phyrexian Arena in the first PTQ with the old manabase I’ll never know. With Dan’s help we worked the number of sources for each color exactly to where they needed to be, leaving enough basics not to be scared of Blood Moon. What happened to the spells, however, was amazing. We could now see exactly how many cards we needed for each matchup, and the sideboard space grew. In fact, the night before Grand Prix: Los Angeles, we figured out that we actually had an extra sideboard slot, a position I’ve never been in.

Now to show you the actual tool. In order to teach you the ways of the spreadsheet I’ve created one for the Tezzeret deck based off of LSV’s article here and his sideboarding advice.

The spreadsheet.

The first column, the total column, has the 75 cards that make up all of Tezzeret. The second column is the maindeck, followed by the sideboard. On the far right is the manabase and a mana calculator, but I’ll be honest, I don’t use that as well as I should. It can calculate how many sources of certain colors you have, but with saclands in the mix things get a little more complicated than I can handle. Below the deck are lists for each matchup. For example, the first list is the matchup for “Fast Zoo” as LSV calls it. It shows the 60 cards that make up the deck after sideboard, as recommended in the article.

I had trouble using the file at first because I didn’t realize that there are only a few places that the user inputs information. The first thing you should do is make a list of all the cards you want in your deck, main or side, and put that list in the total column. Just the card names, not the numbers. The rest of the file is populated from this list, so you’ll see the maindeck, sideboard, and matchups columns all change when you put your list in.

You do most of the input on the mana calculator. You put in each land, the mana it makes, and the number of that land in the deck, and it should calculate how many sources you have of each color. Like I said, I’m not super familiar with that part, but it’s important to at least put in the correct numbers so that the rest of the file knows how many lands you are playing.

There are only two other places the user adds input. First, it’s your job to create the 60 cards you want for each matchup. You put in the numbers next to the cards in each matchup’s column and trim it down to 60. This will populate the numbers in the total column by conglomerating each matchup’s numbers. At first the total column will have more than 75 cards, but that’s where the tool comes in. It helps you see the overlap between matchups, and let’s you easily tweak which matchups you’re willing to sacrifice based on the expected metagame. With this tool you’ll never be over-sideboarding, and you’ll always know your plan when you go to sideboard.

Once each matchup is populated, it’s time to work on your maindeck and sideboard configurations. The last place the file needs your input are the numbers in the maindeck column. Your sideboard numbers are calculated based on the difference between your total and maindeck configurations. This is the time to tweak your maindeck to the metagame, and the tool makes this easy to do over time as the metagame shifts while keeping your sideboard numbers in check.

While useful, this is just a tool; it’s not a substitute for deckbuilding. It certainly won’t build your deck for you, and it’s definitely not a substitute for testing either. I’ve actually found that the more I test, the better the tool works for me. Since the tool works by inputting the ideal deck for each matchup, it helps to know each matchup inside and out. Once you know how much ground you’re willing to give up in each matchup you can move cards around more efficiently if you know which cards matter.

The tool is very good at helping you notice trends. For example, LSV sides in Glen Elendra Archmage for every matchup except All-In Red and Dredge. If you don’t expect to face either of those matchups very often, it might be worth putting  Elendra Archmage in the maindeck. However, the tool doesn’t tell you that the Archmage is often a compliment to the Baneslayer Angel plan, and that the Angel is better after sideboard than it is in game one.

There is no substitute for smart deckbuilding, but I find myself much better prepared for a tournament after using this tool. If anything it’s a great exercise to go through to make sure you know your sideboard plans and to check for inefficiencies. It also really helps you look at each matchup without bias. When you build your deck for each matchup from scratch you can ignore the biases a maindeck configuration might bring with it and instead focus on simply assembling the best 60 cards you can.

I’ve found some weird limitations, such as with cards like Ghost Quarter which is a land that you only want for certain matchups. Or cards like Tormod’s Crypt that you might only want in certain matches, but running one in your maindeck vastly improves your chances there. Since it is an Excel file, though, it’s very open-ended, and you can really form to the tool to your liking. I’ve gotten better at using Excel after basically living in the program at work and can hopefully make improvements over time as I get more familiar with what I need from the tool, as I’m sure you could too. For example, I could probably figure out how to count the frequency of a card’s appearance for matchups and even weight that number based on the expected metagame. What I’m giving you here is a bare-bones framework to work from and a little view into my world. If you find any cool modifications worth making, or have any interesting tools yourself, I’d love to hear about them.

I don’t use this tool nearly as much as I should, and there’s still a time and a place for the napkin brew, but my game is at a whole new level after I’ve run a deck through the paces in Excel. Data is a powerful thing, and Magic is full of it. Any way to better understand the game we play and the decisions we make should help.

The kick-off PTQ of the season is almost here, so wish me luck on the second! I’ll also be playing in the PTQs on Magic Online. More chances to qualify make me happy, and I want to make the best of them. Hopefully my method will help you this season.

Thanks for reading,

Jonathon Loucks
Loucksj at gmail
JonLoucks on twitter
Zygonn on Magic Online

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